- Justice Department strangely downplays prison rape (Photo: Associated Press)
One in eight minors in juvenile detention facilities will be sexually assaulted each year. Eighty percent of these assaults will be perpetrated by a member of the facility's staff. This month, the Justice Department chose to synthesize those statistics [PDF] by concluding: "Mindful that even one incident of sexual victimization of a youth in custody is unacceptable . . . violent sexual assault in juvenile facilities was relatively rare and facility staff, for the most part, did not victimize juvenile offenders."
Just Detention International, the leading organization dedicated to addressing sexual violence in detention facilities, takes issue with this conclusion.
From a JDI statement:
The Department of Justice has squandered an opportunity to address the rampant sexual abuse of detained youth, choosing instead to minimize this crisis. . . . "In fact," said Lovisa Stannow, Executive Director of Just Detention International, "the BJS estimated that almost one in eight kids behind bars had been sexually victimized during a 12-month period, the vast majority of them—80 percent—by staff whose job it is to keep them safe. Many endured repeated abuse, often more than ten times, and frequently by multiple perpetrators. I simply don't understand how that is 'rare.'"
Testimony from the report makes clear that many youth corrections administrators consider staff sexual abuse of detained youth to be largely consensual, or the result of youth manipulation. The Department of Justice perpetuates that view by insisting that most staff sexual abuse of juveniles is not "violent."
"These are teenagers and children we're talking about," said Stannow, "and corrections staff have immense power over their lives. They can influence when juvenile detainees are released; they can put them in solitary confinement; they can house vulnerable youth with inmates who are known to be violent or sexual predators; they can even deny these kids basic hygiene items. The very notion of any sort of consensual sexual relationship between juveniles and adults in such circumstances is grotesque."
Just Detention International hears daily from survivors of sexual abuse in detention, both youth and adults. In many of their letters, survivors emphasize the fact that they did not put up a fight because they were completely at the mercy of officials. One such survivor, Robin, said, "I did what I was told to do, because I wanted to go home." Another, Toni, explained, "People think rape is rape only when someone has a gun to your head. Prison officials don't need a gun; they already have full control over you." Every act of sexual contact between a staff member and a detainee, under any circumstances, is a crime in all 50 states. If the detainee is a minor, it is also child abuse. The Panel failed to acknowledge these basic legal facts in its report.
The Justice Department's downplaying of prison rape statistics is particularly jarring given the department's inaction on this issue. While this report does help to further the study of sexual violence against detainees, Attorney General Eric Holder has so far failed to actually implement new federal standards that could help curtail this violence within corrections facilities. (Holder's deadline for issuing the standards mandated by 2003's Prison Rape Elimination Act passed four months ago). The Justice Department is correct that even one incident of sexual victimization in a detention facility is unacceptable. The department has the power to end this victimization; first, it has to be honest about it.