Lovisa Stannow, We just can't wait to protect kids in custody, The Indianapolis Star,
January 10, 2010
In a study released last Thursday by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, a shocking 36.2 percent of youth confined in the Pendleton Juvenile Correctional Facility and 22.8 percent of youth confined in the Indianapolis Juvenile Correctional Facility report being sexually abused in the past year. That makes Indiana one of the states where children are most likely to be victimized while in the government's care. Nationwide, the BJS found that an unconscionable 12.1 percent of juvenile inmates had been victimized.
Young and scared, incarcerated children typically lack the prison savvy to protect themselves -- street smarts they shouldn't even need, as the mission of youth detention systems is rehabilitation. Last week's report shows that systems like the Indiana Department of Correction, which runs both the Pendleton and Indianapolis juvenile facilities, are failing in that mission. Nothing could be more grotesquely opposed to helping troubled kids turn their lives around than allowing them to be raped. Yet, most appallingly of all, the report shows that the vast majority of those who abuse these children are the very government officials supposed to keep them safe.
Sexual abuse of children in detention is an affront to our most basic values. Those victimized in this way suffer long-term psychological problems, learned violent behavior, and serious medical conditions including HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. Often, they fall into a cycle of imprisonment and further abuse. These consequences ripple through their families and communities.
But prisoner rape is preventable. Some facilities are plagued by sexual abuse while others are virtually free from this type of violence. Stopping it is a matter of committed leadership, staff who understand professional boundaries, and strong policies.
For example, juvenile facilities that consistently separate detainees who are particularly vulnerable to abuse (such as gay youth) from likely predators are able dramatically to reduce sexual violence. Those who make it clear to staff that sexual abuse of detainees simply will not be tolerated are able to minimize violence.
Last June, an expert commission issued the first national standards addressing sexual abuse behind bars, specifying exactly such policies and practices. Mandated by a federal law -- the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 -- the standards were informed by extensive research, public hearings, expert committees and hundreds of public comments on a draft version. The final recommendations represent a hard-reached consensus on best practices. Specific standards for juvenile detention facilities address core issues such as staff training, detainee education, housing, investigations and medical and mental health care in the aftermath of an assault. These common sense measures would make an enormous difference.
The standards were proposed in June 2009. According to the Prison Rape Elimination Act, the U.S. attorney general shall take no more than a year to formalize them as binding federal regulations. Unfortunately, Attorney General Eric Holder has allowed the process to drag on. Now, he may ask for as much as another year to codify them.
In a year's time, thousands more youth would be sexually abused. If the government delays needlessly, it will be failing its constitutional responsibility to protect the safety of those it locks up, who can no longer protect themselves.
The Indiana Department of Correction doesn't have to wait: It can copy the efforts of other officials who have become "early adopters'' of these pivotal measures. And Indiana's congressional delegation and other leaders can pressure the Obama administration to take swift action to formalize the standards. No one supports the sexual abuse of children -- and there can be no excuse for further delaying the most important tool known to stop prisoner rape.