Ending Sexual Abuse of Youth Behind Bars

Liz Ryan

Liz Ryan

A September 4, 2014 article in The Crime Report, “Female Employees the Most Common Abusers in Youth Detention Centers” reported high rates of female staff abuse of youth in juvenile detention and correctional facilities.

Why is anyone surprised? Sexual abuse behind bars happens regardless of the gender of the staff.

When youth are placed behind bars, where a detention or corrections official has with the authority and power to control virtually every aspect of a youth’s life, we set up the conditions for abuse, exploitation, and degradation. Ultimately sexual assault is about power and control.

One has only to look at T. J. Parsell's story to see how youth are raped, exploited and degraded behind bars. He wrote a book about his experience as a teen in adult prison, “Fish: A Boy in a Man's Prison” and now he is making a film.

For far too long, staff in juvenile detention and correctional facilities, adult jails and prisons have been allowed to sexually assault incarcerated youth without fear of being caught and paying the consequences. Detention and corrections officials have looked the other way as youth are sexually assaulted.

And the culture inside institutions is that sexual assault is the norm.

The Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) is changing that. Authored by a bipartisan group of lawmakers, including Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) and Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA), PREA was unanimously approved by Congress and signed into law 11 years ago this past week by President George W. Bush.

The goal of PREA is zero tolerance of sexual assault behind bars. National standards were issued in 2009 by the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission (NPREC), as required by Congress. Draft regulations were issued in 2011. And final regulations were issued two years ago in May 2012.

States and localities are in the process of implementing PREA now. To assist with implementation, the Department of Justice set up the PREA Resource Center, which has provided a website resource, numerous webinars and trainings all over the country.

Despite the federal resources, technical assistance and guidance that the Department of Justice (DOJ) has provided to states and localities, DOJ has come under intense scrutiny for not pressing states hard enough on implementation.

For example, DOJ is allowing states to provide written 'assurances' that they will comply with PREA in lieu of an independent audit. At a press conference on May 28, Deputy Attorney General David Cole and Mary Lou Leary, principal deputy assistant attorney general for the Office of Justice Programs, reported that most states (46) provided written assurances indicating that they intend to comply with PREA.

Written assurances are no substitute for independent audits.

At the end of the day, a written assurance is just a piece of paper. This also appears to be a way for states not to comply with PREA without receiving a financial penalty. Some advocates are questioning whether this contradicts the PREA's regulations.

In addition to the letter sent to AG Holder earlier this year by Texas Governor Rick Perry, who declared he would not comply with PREA, DOJ officials reported that seven other states have not assured DOJ that they would comply.

However, DOJ does not appear to be asking for an accountability of the millions in federal funds that most of these non-compliant states have already received in federal grants for PREA compliance: Arizona ($300,000), Florida ($1.26 million), Idaho ($1.4 million), Indiana ($1.9 million), Nebraska ($644,000) and Texas ($3.5 million).

Too much is at risk for states not to comply.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder must stand firm and ensure this law is fully implemented in the states. Holder should take a more visible and aggressive stance in engaging the governors who intend to flout the law and require some accountability for the federal PREA implementation funds.

Youth behind bars must be protected from sexual abuse.

Liz Ryan is a campaign strategist, youth justice policy expert, and civil and human rights advocate. Follow Liz on Twitter @LizRyanYJ.

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