Juvenile offenders carry pain of abuse back into community after release, The Indianapolis Star, July 16, 2010

The pain -- the kind of pain a mother feels when her child is deeply wounded -- is still evident in Sandra's voice, years after her 13-year-old son was raped by other inmates in an Indiana juvenile prison.

"It ruined his life, and mine too,'' Sandra said. "Our lives haven't been the same since.''

Her son, previously arrested for theft, was sentenced to the Plainfield Juvenile Correctional Facility after he was caught riding in a stolen car. Now an adult, and living in another state, he has struggled with mental illness for much of his life.

Such attacks, according to federal investigators, were rampant in past years at the Plainfield prison, which is no longer operated as a juvenile facility.

Widespread sexual abuse was documented at two other Indiana prisons -- the Pendleton Juvenile Correctional Facility and the recently closed Indianapolis Juvenile Correctional Facility -- in U.S. Department of Justice reports released this year.

Much of that abuse came at the hands of state employees, including guards, nurses and support staff. Most prison employees are, of course, conscientious about trying to protect young inmates. But at Pendleton Juvenile, federal investigators found that teen inmates were four times more likely to be sexually assaulted by a state worker than by another inmate. In several cases, state employees have gone from being paid to watch over teen inmates to serving time behind bars as sexual offenders. It's a serious crime for a state prison worker to engage in sexual activity with an inmate: a Class C felony, and a Class B felony if the victim in detention is younger than 18.

Yet, prison rape normally generates little public outrage. That's in part because it's often viewed as a natural consequence of a criminal conviction, and as a deterrent to crime.

For decades prison administrators and elected officials in Indiana and across the nation didn't take sexual abuse inside prisons seriously either.

That began to change in 2003 with passage of the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act, which forces federal and state agencies to document the frequency of sexual abuse and to take steps to stop it.

Under pressure from the Justice Department, officials in Indiana and other states finally have started to transform a prison culture that has long allowed sexual predators easy access to victims.

"We're at a point where most leading corrections officials acknowledge that sexual abuse is a problem that needs to be addressed, and that's huge progress,'' said Lovisa Stannow, executive director of Just Detention International.

It's a problem that needs to be addressed first because sexual assault is neither an acceptable nor an unavoidable consequence of a prison sentence. Rape, after all, is a crime, whether it occurs in prison or not.

Other states, most notably Missouri, have successfully reduced assaults on teens by moving away from large adult-style prisons. Smaller lockups make it easier to separate violent prisoners from vulnerable teens, including those who are nonviolent or new to the system.

Better access to community-based treatment for juveniles suffering from mental illnesses also would divert to more suitable settings a large number of inmates who frequently are the victims of sexual violence.

The public also has a self-interest in ensuring that teens aren't sexually attacked while in custody. The vast majority of offenders will be released after short stints in prison. They bring the scars, and the dangerous lessons learned about sexual violence, back to their home communities.

There's also a matter of fairness. Juvenile justice in Indiana isn't evenly distributed. Depending on where a teenager goes to court, the odds of being sentenced to the state system increase substantially.

In Elkhart County, with a population of about 200,000 people, 108 offenders were sentenced to juvenile prisons last year. Contrast that to the 148 from Marion County, where the population is four times larger.

In Hendricks County, home to about 140,000 people, 40 youths were sent to state juvenile prisons last year. Yet, only nine were sentenced in 2009 from Hamilton County, with a population of about 280,000. And only 57 came from Allen County, with more than 350,000 people.

Lake County, with a population of about 500,000, sent only 72 youths to DOC's juvenile facilities last year.

Bartholomew County, which state officials credit with doing a particularly good job of finding alternatives to prison for troubled youth, sent five teens into the state system last year. It has a population of 76,000. In contrast, 28 juveniles from Clinton County were ordered to state prison from a population of about 35,000 people.

Such discrepancies in sentencing mean that some teens have been put at risk of becoming victims of sexual violence based largely on where they live.

But aren't troubled and trouble-making juveniles already a lost cause? State statistics say otherwise. According to Edwin Buss, commissioner of the Indiana Department of Correction, more than 75 percent of juvenile inmates never return to the DOC system, either as teens or adults.

The behavior that landed juveniles in prison may stop, but the deep wounds inflicted there can fester for decades, a constant reminder of the pain and suffering they endured while under the state's care.

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