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People in Custody Are Reporting Sexual Abuse — But Corrections Officials Aren’t Always Responding

  • June 2, 2021

Advocates are encouraged by new data showing that adults and kids in detention are more comfortable speaking out. But shoddy investigations continue to plague both adult and juvenile systems.

Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., June 2, 2021 — Children and adults in custody are filing a record number of sexual abuse reports, according to a pair of new studies released today by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS). Using information provided by youth detention administrators, BJS’ Sexual Victimization Reported by Juvenile Justice Authorities, 2013–2018 tallied 2,467 reports of sexual abuse of youth in 2018, the most recent year for which data is available — a huge increase from the 1,300 reports in 2013. In adult detention facilities, reports of sexual abuse reached 27,826 in 2018, up from 13,568 in 2013, according to BJS’ Sexual Victimization Reported by Adult Correctional Authorities, 2016–2018.

The increase in the reporting of sexual abuse in detention is not necessarily a red flag. Rather than indicating skyrocketing levels of this violence, these figures point to corrections officials having implemented improved reporting mechanisms, as required by the national Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) standards. Since the standards’ release in 2012, the BJS studies have consistently shown a sharp uptick in reporting, a trend that advocates believe is linked to strong implementation of these rules.

“This new data is a clear sign of the remarkable cultural shift that’s happening in our adult and children’s detention facilities,” said Linda McFarlane, Executive Director of Just Detention International. “For the longest time, survivors of sexual abuse in detention were silenced, either because there was no information provided about how to come forward, they knew they wouldn’t be believed, or, worse, feared retaliation. To be sure, these obstacles to speaking out still remain. We know that sexual abuse is still rampant in facilities — but we’re miles ahead of where we were a decade ago.”

The good news on reporting is tempered by BJS’ findings on the outcomes of investigations. The new youth and adult studies show that investigators are unlikely to substantiate a report of sexual abuse following an investigation — especially when the alleged perpetrator is a member of staff. In the youth system, during 2013-2018, 22 percent of reports made against another youth and 7 percent of reports against staff were substantiated. In adult facilities, during 2016-2018, 8 percent of reports made against another incarcerated person and 5 percent of reports made against staff were substantiated.

“The low rate of substantiated reports is an indictment of the investigations conducted in youth and adult detention facilities,” said McFarlane. “What corrections officials are saying, essentially, is that in completely locked detention facilities, where they monitor and control every person’s movements, they can’t determine whether abuse has happened. And worse, when they can make a determination, they conclude the report was false. Neither explanation holds water. People are bravely stepping forward to report sexual abuse, only to be failed by the people in charge of their safety. Of course, no one, including incarcerated people, should ever be sexually abused in the first place. But when a survivor reports abuse, we need officials to conduct a sensitive and professional investigation. If they don’t commit to adopting a trauma-informed, start-by-believing approach, then the hard work around improving the sexual abuse reporting process will have been pointless.”

Unfortunately, today’s reports do not include information on steps taken in the aftermath of a report, such medical follow-up for survivors and sanctions for perpetrators in cases that were substantiated. Nor do they contain basic details about perpetrators and survivors, such as their age and gender. These data points are vital for understanding the dynamics of sexual abuse — and for assessing how facilities hold perpetrators accountable. A 2016 BJS report, for example, revealed that, among staff who were found to have committed sexual abuse, 15 percent were allowed to keep their jobs. BJS also withheld critical information from its most recent National Survey of Youth in Custody; after a pressure campaign from JDI, it finally released what it had. “We’ve been down this road before with BJS, and it’s frustrating that they are not releasing all the data that they have,” said McFarlane. “The crisis of sexual abuse in detention is completely preventable. But we can’t work to stop it if the government keeps vital information under lock and key.”

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Just Detention International is a health and human rights organization that seeks to end sexual abuse in all forms of detention.