Juvenile inmates describe sexual abuse at Boston hearing, Associated Press, June 1, 2006.

BOSTON -- Pamanicka "Chino" Hardin was just 15 but already locked up in an adult prison in New York for assault when a 32-year-old female inmate pinned her up against a wall and threatened her with a sawed-off broomstick.

Hardin fended off the attempted rape, but she said many other juvenile inmates are not as lucky.

"We know prison is a form of punishment, but must it be cruel and unusual?" said Hardin, who testified Thursday before the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission, a bipartisan group created by Congress in 2003 to study the problem.

The commission is holding a series of hearings around the country to hear testimony and recommendations before it files a report with Congress in July 2007. Each hearing has focused on a different aspect of prison rape. The hearing in Boston on Thursday looked at rape of juveniles.

The Associated Press does not identify victims of sexual assault. But each of the people who testified before the commission on Thursday agreed to be named publicly.

Hardin, now 26, said one of her close friends was raped by a male guard.

"She was terrified, and did not report what happened to her. As a result, she received no medical treatment or counseling," Hardin told the commission.

Another former inmate, Cyryna Pasion, said that as a transgender girl, she was regularly sexually harassed and abused by both guards and other inmates.

"I survived threats of violence, unwanted sexual touching and verbal abuse that were severe beyond belief," Pasion said.

Pasion, who was born male, had been taking female hormone shots and dressed as a girl by the time he ended up in a youth correctional center in Hawaii. Now living as a woman, she recalls initially being housed with the girls, but later being sent to the male unit. There, she said, she was sexually harassed and abused on a daily basis.

"I recall that in some instances, corrections staff heard what was being said and laughed or encouraged the boys' conduct in some other way," she said. "I felt tortured and alone."

Katherine Hall-Martinez, co-executive director of Stop Prisoner Rape, an advocacy group for inmates, said sexual abuse in prison is vastly underreported _ particularly in juvenile correctional centers _ because inmates are afraid of retaliation by other inmates or guards.

In 2004, the most recent figures available, there were more than 2,800 incidents of sexual abuse reported in juvenile facilities in the United States, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

"It's a huge problem," Hall-Martinez said during a recess from the hearing. "Children in this situation do not feel they can come forward. Because of their age and vulnerability, they are particularly preyed upon by corrections staff."

Mark Soler, executive director of the Center for Children's Law and Policy, urged the commission to recommend a revamping of the inmate classification system so that the more vulnerable juveniles are protected. The nine-member commission is made up of judicial, correctional and educational leaders.

Soler also said correctional facilities need to do thorough pre-employment screening of guards and to develop a confidential grievance system so that juveniles can complain about sexual abuse to an administrator rather than to a guard who may seek retaliation.

U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., one of the sponsors of the legislation that created the commission, said juveniles housed with adults are five times more likely to report being victims of sexual assault than those in juvenile facilities.

"The nearly 100,000 children who make up the juvenile prison population are possibly the most vulnerable and defenseless group in our criminal justice system, and too often, we fail to protect them," Kennedy told the commission.

The commission's next hearing is scheduled in Detroit on Aug. 3.