Ross Douthat, The Case For Prison Reform, Again, The New York Times, February 18, 2010

It can’t be made often enough. In a grim New York Review of Books essay on prison rape, the authors zero in on sexual abuse at juvenile detention centers:

In 2004, the Department of Justice investigated a facility in Plainfield, Indiana, where kids sexually abused each other so often and in such numbers that staff created flow charts to track the incidents. The victims were frequently as young as twelve or thirteen; investigators found “youths weighing under seventy pounds who engaged in sexual acts with youths who weighed as much as 100 pounds more than them.” A youth probation officer in Oregon was arrested the same year on more than seventy counts of sex crimes against children, and one of his victims hanged himself. In Florida in 2005, corrections officers housed a severely disabled fifteen-year-old boy whose IQ was 32 with a seventeen-year-old sex offender, giving the seventeen-year-old the job of bathing him and changing his diaper. Instead, the seventeen-year-old raped him repeatedly.

The list of such stories goes on and on. After each of them was made public, it was possible for officials to contend that they reflected anomalous failings of a particular facility or system. But a report just issued on January 7 by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) should change that … Across the country, 12.1 percent of kids questioned in the BJS survey said that they’d been sexually abused at their current facility during the preceding year. That’s nearly one in eight …

Most of these kids, the authors note, aren’t being detained for violent crimes. (The survey didn’t look at the thousands of teenagers who are tried as adults, and confined in adult prisons and jails.) And more than twenty percent are in being held for “technical offenses such as violating probation, or for ’status offenses’ like missing curfews, truancy, or running away—often from violence and abuse at home.”

Prison will always be prison: Every society has to live with some level of institutional violence in the worlds it builds to confine its most dangerous elements, and there’s an inherent cruelty to incarceration that cannot be refined away. But there has to be a limit, as well. And what Americans have learned to tolerate (or rather, ignore) inside the walls of jails and prisons ought to churn our stomachs, shock our consciences, and produce not only outrage, but action.

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