Twelve percent – or about one in eight – of youths held in large juvenile facilities in the United States report being victimized sexually while behind bars, and the majority of the abusive sexual relationships are between male inmates and female staff members, rather than youth-on-youth incidents.
Non-heterosexual youth are nearly twice as likely as heterosexual youth to be abused in juvenile facilities – and most of those do involve youth-on-youth incidents – according to a Bureau of Justice Statistics survey released last month.
The survey was the first attempt by the Justice Department to gauge the level of reported sexual victimization – which includes nonconsensual sex between youth or any sex between youth and staff members – in large facilities that house youth who have been sentenced by a judge. The survey reports statistics from 2008 and 2009 and thus is essentially current, rather than years old, as some Justice Department reports have been previously
“It confirms the problems we know are happening in facilities,” said Dana Shoenberg, senior staff attorney for the Center for Children’s Law and Policy in Washington. “It’s good to have data now.”
Some state juvenile justice leaders quickly voiced concerns that the figures were not accurate.
The report, using a survey of more than 9,000 juveniles, projected that about 3,220 of the 26,550 youths locked up in large juvenile facilities have been sexually victimized. That included 700 youths victimized by another juvenile and 2,730 victimized by a staff member (with a small percentage of youth victimized by both).
Of the 2,730 youths engaged in sexual activity with staff members, 92 percent were male wards who had engaged in sexual activity with a female staff member.
Juvenile male/female staff relationships accounted for virtually all of the reported unforced relations with staff, and for 86 percent of the sexual incidents that involved staff using the threat of force or bribery to elicit sexual favors.
Of the estimated 3,210 non-heterosexual youth confined in large facilities, 20.4 percent – or one in five – experienced sexual victimization. That is nearly twice the rate of victimization reported by heterosexual youth.
That the majority of inappropriate sexual contact is between incarcerated males and empowered females belies the archetypal perception of sexual abuse. But facility administrators are well aware that it is the most frequent type of relationship, according to Michael Dempsey, director of the Division of Youth Services for the Indiana Department of Corrections. Last year, Dempsey was superintendent of the state’s Pendleton Juvenile Correctional Facility, one of 13 facilities identified in the report as having the highest rates of reported victimization.
“It typically starts out as a mothering type of relationship,” Dempsey said. “They feel something for the kid, pay more attention to him. And it evolves from that.”
The survey provides figures for each facility in which it was administered, but singles out 13 with the highest rates of reported victimization – about one in three juveniles. Of those 13 facilities, six are in Texas, Indiana or Virginia. Another is the ever-embattled L.E. Rader Center in Oklahoma, which is reducing its population by half this year and may be torn down in the near future.
But the report’s statistics have some states questioning the methodology of the report.
In Indiana, Dempsey said he doesn’t dispute the fact that sexual victimization is a problem, and he recently had to suspend four staffers indefinitely because of a relationship between a female guard and a juvenile.
How accurate is the survey?
But Dempsey said Pendleton has participated in Performance-based Standards, a national program that requires participants to track conditions in facilities and the outcomes of its wards, for years. The program includes regularly surveying youth about sexual activity in the facilities.
“The data reported on those [PbS] surveys was not close to these numbers,” Dempsey said. “I question the methodology used to put this report together.”
Officials in Maryland and Virginia, which also have facilities on the list of highest reported rates of victimization, voiced concern last month about the numbers in the report. Bruce Twyman, a spokesman for the Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice, told The Washington Post that the department has concerns about the methodology, but “agree[s] that sexual victimization is an issue that needs to be addressed in the state of Virginia, as well as the nation.”
Other findings from the survey include:
• Of the youth who reported incidents of victimization, 80 percent said no physical injury resulted. That figure may prove to be one of the key findings, according to Shoenberg of the Center for Children’s Law and Policy. Current rules require anyone who wants to litigate prison conditions to demonstrate physical injury, Shoenberg said. Though they are considered victimization, the threat of force or bribes of protection or drugs leave no physical injuries.
• Female juveniles reported a slightly higher rate of victimization than males (14 percent compared with 12.6 percent). Like youths classified as non-heterosexual, they reported far higher rates of youth-on-youth victimization than males (11 percent versus 2 percent) and far less victimization from staff members (5 percent versus 11.3 percent).
The report is already stirring action. The Justice Department’s Review Panel on Prison Rape will hold hearings on the Bureau of Justice Statistics report, according to a Justice Department press release, and the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention will fund a National Training and Technical Assistance Center for Youth in Custody. OJJDP also will conduct a listening session with juvenile corrections leaders about the study and partner with the National Institute of Corrections to develop training resources concerning sexual victimization.
States with high rates of victimization may also be pressured into paying for on-site independent monitors. That could come in the form of a broader ombudsman’s office like the one in Texas, which was created as part of the state’s juvenile justice reform in 2007. Still, all but two of the 13 Texas facilities included in the survey posted reported victimization rates higher than 14 percent. At two of them – Evins Regional Juvenile Center and Victory Field Correctional Academy – close to a quarter of the wards reported victimization.
The survey was administered at 166 state-owned facilities and 29 large private or locally run facilities. Every state-run facility with more than 90 youth residents participated.
Using computers, youth were asked a relatively short series of questions, and they answered the questions using a touch-screen application.