Teenage inmates in adult prisons endure higher rates of sexual abuse by staff members than adult inmates do, according to a new study from the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics. Because of the vast under-reporting of such abuses, the true number is likely to be much higher.
While 1.8 percent of 16- and 17-year-olds in adult prisons reported being assaulted by another inmate, 3.2 percent were abused by staff. Gay and bisexual inmates were abused at even higher rates. Inmates diagnosed with serious psychological distress were also prime targets for victimization by staff members and inmates alike.
The Prison Rape Elimination Act, passed in 2003, created the first national standards to curb sexual violence in prison. Because teenagers are considered prey in adult prisons, PREA stipulated that minors should be removed from all adult jails and prisons. Ten years later, the October 2013 deadline for state and local prison facilities to certify compliance with PREA is just a few months away. Yet inmates, primarily those who are 16 and 17 years old, continue to live under constant threat of rape in adult prisons. Three-quarters of sexually victimized youth in the DOJ study reported they were abused more than once, and nearly half said staff used force to get what they wanted.
One former juvenile inmate who was raped and abused in prison explains that the horrors they experience spill over into society at large:
Placing juveniles in adult facilities has devastating consequences not only for the youth but also for the communities from which they came. Eighty percent are released before their 21st birthday, and 95 percent are released before they turn 25. They’re coming back into society indelibly marked by what they’ve experienced — either traumatized by sexual assault, or hyper-violent from having learned to fend off the threat.
Critics of PREA note that the bill has no way to enforce its standards to curb sexual assaults and is completely dependent on self-reporting by the agencies holding the prisoners. Anecdotal evidence suggests the true number of assaults is suppressed by youths who are afraid to report. It’s no wonder many choose not to report, as a 2005 DOJ study found that few prosecutors are willing to prosecute cases that cannot prove staff members threatened overt physical force to rape inmates because the penalty is so low. Staffers who are charged will often be released on low bonds or receive short sentences because their victims were inmates. Even when staffers were clearly caught sexually abusing prisoners, only about 56 percent were referred to prosecutions.