Matt Kelley, Sexual Assaults Rampant in Juvenile Detention, criminaljustice.change.org, January 8, 2010

A report released today by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics reveals that more than 12% of young people in juvenile detention facilities are sexually assaulted during their incarceration. The study points specifically to a serious problem with staff in these facilities: 80 percent of juvenile prisoners reporting abuse were abused by staff, and, surprisingly, 95 percent of those abused by staff were abused by female staffers.

Writing today on the New York Review of Books blog, Just Detention International Executive Director Lovisa Stannow and writer David Kaiser point to these new statistics as a sign of the work to be done in preventing sexual assault in prison. Not only are these numbers shocking, they write, they're also probably underreported, because prisoners are often hesitate to report assaults and because some facilities and juveniles were left out.

Looking at the high numbers of staff assaults, Stannow and Kaiser write:

Staff caught having sex with inmates often claim it’s consensual. But staff have enormous control over inmates’ lives. They can give them privileges, such as extra food or clothing or the opportunity to wash, and they can punish them: everything from beatings to solitary confinement to extended sentences. The notion of a truly consensual relationship in such circumstances is grotesque even when the inmate is not a child.

The epidemic of sexual assault in juvenile facilities is terrible, and it's just one aspect of wider problem. It has been more than six months since the U.S. federal government released the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission Report, calling for the implementation of universal standards to address core prison management issues such as staff training, inmate education, housing, investigations, and medical and mental health care in the aftermath of an assault. These reforms have been slow to come, Stannow and Kaiser write, saying: "despite the reports by the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission and the Bureau of Justice Statistics, some important corrections leaders are fighting the necessary reforms."

In juvenile facilities at least, with so much of the problem concentrated among staff, the problem can and should be addressed immediately and swiftly by wardens and corrections officials. The commission's report issued in June (PDF here) calls for corrections institutions to change their cultures to deal with the rate of assaults by staff.

"Leaders need the right staff to create a genuine culture of zero tolerance," the report says. "Rigorous vetting is crucial; so are supporting and promoting staff that demonstrate commitment to preventing sexual abuse."

This is a big job, but it is absolutely critical that we tackle prison sexual assaults head on. If we fail to address this issue openly and immediately, we're fueling a institutional culture that accepts sexual assault behind bars, and that's not acceptable.

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