Beyond the Horrible, the Reality of Sexual Assault in Youth Detention

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I was 18 years old when I was arrested and sent to jail. But the real hell of my life to come started on my 19th birthday, when the state shipped me off to a place called Alto, a notorious youth prison in north Georgia.

There was much to fear in this place, but nothing quite frightening as much as the likelihood of sexual assault.

I knew from talking to older guys in jail, before I was sent off to Alto, that rapes were common, but nothing they told me prepared me for the reality of what I witnessed. The place (it has since been shuttered) had been built in the 1930s as a hospital. Fifty years later, it was a dilapidated house of horrors. You see, it wasn’t designed to be a prison, so there were countless places where terrible and dangerous things could go on easily out of sight of any guard lounging in the comfort of a control booth or guard tower. In this environment we were expected to take care of and fend for ourselves, and some men couldn’t.

It was all a nightmare, but one incident especially continues to haunt me. A young man had recently been moved into our dorm. He was a small guy with a timid attitude. Immediately several predators began to test him. They would start by disrespecting him in some way, then, when he did not respond, they would increase the pressure. This went on a few days, until they threatened kill him if he didn’t give in to their demands.

If he did what they wanted, they promised him, they would protect him from the other rapists. In this way they “convinced” him, and he surrendered in order to save himself. So they set out to have their way. They hung a towel so that the guards couldn’t see into the area and ordered the boy to perform oral sex on them, one after another.

A line formed. Those that wanted the “service” waited their turn, while those that opposed what was happening did nothing. After an hour or so it was over. He walked into the bathroom and stood looking into the mirror. I saw him as he pulled out a blade removed from a safety razor and began to slash at his throat. He never stopped staring at his reflection. The guards ran in and took him away, never to be seen by us again

Sexual assaults happened at every prison I lived in over my nearly 25 years of incarceration. They were not always so blatant or extreme, but they were common. Victims seldom reported the incidents. If they did they risked being further endangered, not just by their attackers, but by staff as well. Often when incidents were reported the authorities did little to stop it. Sometimes the staff did not believe the allegation, or thought that the accuser had brought the attack on themselves somehow. Sometimes the staff simply resented the hassle of doing the paperwork, and they especially did not like accusations that they hadn’t done their jobs.

Also, the attackers were seldom punished to the full extent of the law. Institutions often form closed loops that resist outside evaluation, so the crimes were not always reported to the district attorneys. Even when they were, DAs were sometimes reluctant to prosecute. Crimes that occur in prison are less likely to be prosecuted, including rape. This means that attackers and victims often remain in close proximity.

Juvenile prisons do not seem to be any better, and may be even worse than adult prisons. I knew many men who had been in youth facilities, some within the past few years, and the horror stories they told about their days in youth detention centers reminded me of my own days as a teenager in prison. I was reminded of this while doing some research recently. Part of my reading included the 2010 Department of Justice National Survey of Youth in Custody. Much of it seemed familiar, though there were a few surprises as well.

This will be familiar reading to some people who know this issue and have worked to try to eliminate it. Me, well I’m still being educated about how academics and bureaucrats see from the outside a life I lived on the inside.

The report was compiled by the Bureau of Justice Statistics in compliance with the Prison Rape Elimination Act. However, the DOJ review panel on prison rape downplayed the results, saying that it “indicated that sexual assault in juvenile facilities was relatively rare and facility staff, for the most part, did not victimize juvenile offenders.”

This was their position, despite the fact that of the 26,550 youths involved in the survey, about 10 percent, reported being victimized by staff. Another 2.6 percent reported being assaulted by other inmates. Of the alleged assaults by staff 95 percent were female, with 92 percent of the victims being male. These events are often minimized by administrators and categorized as consensual relationships. Even though sexual relations between staff and juvenile inmates is illegal across the United States, the male inmates who have sex with female staff are not seen as victims.

This position is ridiculous. First, as juveniles, many of these victims are outside of the legal range for having consensual sex with adults. Being incarcerated does not remove them from the moral sphere, nor does it mean that they deserve less consideration from society. Second, the power dynamics of a prisoner and his or her keepers are hugely skewed. In terms of power, the prisoner is a slave and the staff member, the master. It is not possible that a relationship can happen between a prisoner and a staff member without coercion, either implicit or explicit. The very power that a staff member holds is a huge threat. With little effort the employee can cause the child tremendous problems.

Even if the child wants the relationship, we as a society do not condone it. In the world outside of prisons these relationships are illegal. They are unacceptable to say the least in a facility where the inmate is supposed to be protected and given an opportunity to be rehabilitated. Being the victim in a one-sided relationship meets neither of these goals.

Whatever form sexual assaults take in juvenile facilities, they should not be tolerated or downplayed. More oversight needs to be in place that is not a part of the facility itself. More staff screenings need to occur at opposite-gender facilities. Those who do commit these crimes need to be punished.

The laws are already in place. They only need to be enforced with the same vigilance that sent these kids to prison.

John Lash served nearly 25 years in Georgia prisons. He was released in December 2009. While in, he began to practice Zen meditation and other approaches to studying consciousness. He later became interested in interpersonal communication and group processes. He studied and taught nonviolent communication and restorative practices in prison where he also got his BS in human resources management from Mercer University. He is a participant in Compassionate Leadership, a non-violent communication training program, and is a student in the Master of Conflict Management program at Kennesaw State University.