New report exposes the crisis of juvenile prison rape

Jail cell in the Brecksville Police Department...

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A jaw-dropping new study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics reveals that thousands of children are raped and molested every year while in the government’s care, usually by the very officials charged with their rehabilitation and protection. These findings are actually much worse than any numbers previously reported by the media.

The report summary, written by David Kaiser and Lovisa Stannow, and which should be read in its entirety, describes a nationwide epidemic that has been made worse by the overcrowding of prisons.

12.1 percent of kids taking the BJS survey across the country said they’d been sexually abused at their current facility during the preceding year. That’s approximately 3,220 out of the 26,550 who were eligible to take it.

And these figures are most likely low. Some prisoners hesitate to report abuse due to fear of retaliation from other prisoners or staff (80 percent of the abuse reported in the study was perpetrated by staff, and surprisingly, 95 percent of the youth making such allegations said they were victimized by female staff.) These prisoners are also unlikely to receive medical treatment after they are assaulted.

34 percent of these youth are in prison for non-violent crimes (not that violent crime perpetrators deserve this treatment either, but this detail seems particularly sad to me).

This report doesn’t even include the more than 8,500 youth who have been thrown into the adult prison system (in the US, 200,000 are tried each year as adults,) and are actually at more risk of being sexually abused. According to a report by the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission, a large portion of juvy (more than 20 percent) were originally thrown into jail because they committed the Crime Of Being A Teenager: disobeying parental orders, missing curfews, truancy, running away, etc. Sometimes these kids are just trying to get away from violence in abusive homes when they are imprisoned, only to likely be abused themselves.

The NPREC report stresses that sexual abuse is not an inevitable part of prison culture. Strong leadership among corrections administrators can create a culture within prison facilities that promotes safety instead of one that tolerates abuse. This begins by targeting the vulnerable prisoners and providing them with added security.

For example, a 1982 study in a medium-security men’s facility in California found the rate of abuse was much higher among gay prisoners (41 percent) than heterosexual prisoners (9 percent). Additionally, NPREC reports that male-to-female transgender individuals are at special risk. Dean Spade, founder of the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, testified before the Commission that one of his transgender clients was deliberately placed in a cell with a convicted sex offender to be raped.

According to data collected by BJS in 2005–2006, 36 percent of all victims in substantiated incidents of sexual violence were female, even though girls represented only 15 percent of confined youth in 2006. And they are much more at risk of abuse by staff than by their peers.

Gays, transgendered, females, the disabled, and immigrants are at special risk within the prison system, and the report suggests administration take decisive steps to protect these individuals. Some facilities already do this. For example, the Federal Bureau of Prisons and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, now use written instruments to screen all incoming prisoners specifically for risk of sexual assault.

It’s important to break this cycle of violence, which is why these kinds of reports are extremely valuable. The BJS report, which was mandated by the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 (PREA), is now the most authoritative study of the abuse epidemic. State leadership should demand facilities adhere to the recommendations made in the BJS and NPREC reports.


  1. Zaid Jilani

    Our prisons are a complete mess.

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