Justice Department Report on Sexual Assault in Juvenile Detention Minimizes Violence

  • Cara Kulwicki
  • October 29, 2010
  • The Curvature Blog

The Department of Justice has just released its Report on Sexual Victimization in Juvenile Correctional Facilities (pdf). While presenting an excellent opportunity to meaningfully engage with the widespread problem of sexual abuse in juvenile detention, as Just Detention notes in its response to the report, the DoJ instead decides to largely minimize the extent of the epidemic. Just Detention writes:

The Department of Justice has squandered an opportunity to address the rampant sexual abuse of detained youth, choosing instead to minimize this crisis. In the executive summary of its new “Report on Sexual Victimization in Juvenile Correctional Facilities,” the Department’s Review Panel on Prison Rape claims that a recent study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) “indicated that violent sexual assault in juvenile facilities was relatively rare and facility staff, for the most part, did not victimize juvenile offenders.”

“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.’”

Indeed, on page 1 of the report, the DoJ astoundingly makes the claim that violent sexual assaults are rare while immediately following it with the same statistics cited above:

In a society that values the dignity of each individual, any incident of sexual victimization of a youth in custody is unacceptable. From this perspective, the Panel reviewed the BJS Juvenile Report and noted that violent sexual assault in juvenile facilities is relatively rare and that facility staff members, for the most part, do not victimize juvenile offenders. The Panel commends juvenile justice administrators who have, as a whole, worked hard toward eliminating sexual victimization in their facilities.

The BJS Juvenile Report found that of the estimated 26,551 adjudicated youth held in state facilities or large non-state facilities in 2008-09, about 12.1% (3,220) reported experiencing sexual violence. About 2.6% of these reported incidents involved other youths, whereas about 10.3% involved facility staff members. For the reported youth-on-youth incidents, 2.0% involved nonconsensual acts; for the reported staff-on-youth incidents, 4.3% involved force and 6.4% did not involve force. Facilities that housed only female youth offenders had the highest rates of youth-on-youth victimization (11.0%), whereas facilities that housed only male youth offenders had the highest rates of staff sexual misconduct (11.3%).

After acknowledging that 12.1% of youth report sexual assault while in juvenile detention, the report then goes on to cite even more detailed numbers, including the increased rate of sexual violence at large facilities, the fact that increased time spent in a facility correlates to increased likelihood of being sexually assaulted, the higher rate of sexual violence by staff against black youth, and the higher rate of sexual violence against queer youth in general.

So, again. How does this correspond to a conclusion that violent sexual assault in juvenile detention facilities is “relatively rare”?

The explanation is simple, if incredibly chilling. It seems that the DoJ is picking and choosing which sexual assaults they are deeming “violent” — and deciding that if an assault did not include physical force, it doesn’t fit the bill. As Just Detention says:

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.”

I’ll go one step further to say that labeling any sexual assault that does not involve physical force as non-violent is grotesque. It’s straight up rape apologism. Categorizing sexual assaults as “violent” and “non-violent” majorly aggravates me, because the very process is founded on a false premise that sexual assault can be non-violent. It can’t. It’s called assault for a reason. Any act of imposing your body sexually on another human being without their 100% full, meaningful consent is violence. Period. Whether it involves beating that person into submission, frightening them into compliance, or simply ignoring them when they say “no.” All of it is violent. Every single last bit.

One can’t help but wonder if the decision to label so many of the offenses “non-violent” isn’t largely based, in addition to standard rape culture myths on which assaults do and don’t matter, on who the primary perpetrators are — an answer that may surprise you:

For youth reporting staff-on-youth incidents of sexual victimization, 95% reported that the perpetrator involved a female staff member. In regard to incidents of staff sexual misconduct, 92.0% involved male youth and female staff members; 1.7% involved male youth and male staff members; 2.5% involved male youth and both male and female staff members; 3.0% involved female youth and male staff members; 0.0% involved female youth and female staff members; and 0.8% involved female youth and both male and female staff members.

I have to say that I was initially pretty shocked, though I probably shouldn’t have been — when women are perpetrators of sexual violence, a vast majority of their victims are male minors. While still sincerely surprised that there were not more reports of sexual violence by male staff members against female juveniles (or male juveniles, for that matter), as the numbers are given as a percentage, this may be more reflective of how severe the problem of sexual violence against young men in detention is, rather than evidence of a lack of problem regarding sexual violence against young women.

But looking at these numbers, a large part of this problem has a very obvious and relatively simple solution. With regards to sexual assault perpetrated by staff against youth, 95% of assaults were committed by a single perpetrator against an other sex youth. There certainly are problems inherent in any gender segregation system of detention — namely, the lack of adequate protocol regarding trans* people, and the atrocious treatment and violence that usually results. But the youth are already segregated under the current system. And when 92% of staff assaults were by female guards against male youth, 3% were by male guards against female youth, and an additional 4.2% involved both male and female guards, the elimination of cross-gender supervision seems to be the clear and arguably necessary step. While I’m willing to admit that I might be missing an important contrary argument, I currently see extremely little reason why this action hasn’t yet been taken.

It would not solve the problem of youth-on-youth assaults. It would not solve the small minority of cases where both victim and perpetrator are of the same gender. It would not address the larger, more fundamental issue of rape culture and why assaults in the current climate are being committed. But when a whopping 10% of youths are reporting sexual violence being committed against them by staff, it’s time to go into emergency mode and do some triage. If there seems to be a step that can be undertaken to immediately and significantly reduce the number of assaults, that needs to be the one that is first taken. And then we can and should get to work on the parts of the crisis that are left.

Just Detention does note that “the Panel called for more research into the dynamics of cross-gender supervision, effective training regimens, and the development of best practices.” But I’m far from convinced that such non-committal, rhetoric-driven responses are good enough.

Finally, I think that a discussion of sexual violence in juvenile detention facilities is also the perfect time to ask ourselves why we’re locking up juveniles anyway. I think it’s clear that I generally support rehabilitation/re-entry programs over incarceration any day, but if there’s anyone who stands a strong chance at rehabilitation, and to whom we owe assistance, it’s minors. If minors are committing crimes, even including violent ones, that’s on us as a society for doing something very wrong. It’s about time we accepted that responsibility and gave youth whatever it is we seriously screwed up the first time around, rather than turning them into prisoners and sexually assaulting them.