Young People in Adult Facilities Still ‘At Risk,’ says Youth Justice Group

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Photo courtesy Campaign For Youth Justice

Young people held in adult prisons or jails still remain “at risk” for sexual or physical assault despite growing state compliance with standards set by the Prison Rape Elimination Act, according to the Campaign For Youth Justice (CFYJ).

The report by the youth advocacy group, released to mark “Youth Justice Action Month” on the 15th anniversary of the 2003 Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), reviewed 826 audits by PREA of adult facilities conducted between 2014-2018 across all 50 states.

The audits examined compliance with the Youthful Inmate Standard—a set of guidelines by the Department of Justice requiring youth under 18 to be housed “sight and sound-separated” from adults while held in adult jails, lockups, detention facilities and prisons.

Researchers found that the overall number of sexual assault incidents reported by correctional administrators involving young people under 18 held in adult facilities tripled from 8,768 in 2011, before the DOJ’s youth guidelines were finalized, to 24,661 in 2015.

The increase in reported incidents may reflect the mandates to compile statistics set since the Youthful Inmate Standard was implemented, the researchers said, noting that “implementation of the PREA standards have succeeded in increased awareness and training on how to address sexual assault in state-run facilities, resulting in more reported incidents than before.”

But it added that “litigation, data and numerous news stories suggest that youth who remain in these facilities are unfortunately still at risk.”

The study said existing data do not provide a clear answer to the question of whether youth under 18 are “safer” in adult facilities now than they were before the passage of PREA, but it argued that “implementation loopholes still leave some youth vulnerable. “

The study added: “There is also growing recognition that safety should not only be defined as the absence of sexual assault, but also the absence of prolonged solitary confinement, having access to mental health treatment to address depression and self-harm, and being free from other traumatic institutional policies.”

By those measures, the study said, there is still a lot of work to be done.

“While PREA’s Youthful Inmate Standard was a step in the right direction, when it comes to providing youth what they need to develop into productive adults, it’s not nearly enough,” said Marcy Mistrett, CEO of the Campaign for Youth Justice, in a statement accompanying the study.

“For many young people who remain in adult jails, compliance with the standard has resulted in prolonged solitary confinement, and continued threats to their physical safety. To ensure safety and rehabilitation, youth should not be held in places that were not designed or programmed with them in mind.”

CFYJ, a Washington, DC-based nonprofit, advocates for removal of young people from the adult criminal justice system adult facilities, and for creating “more developmentally appropriate ways to hold youth accountable for their actions, while eliminating the harms associated with exposure to adult courts, jails, and prisons.”

The report, prepared by Jasmine Awad, Rachel Marshall, Eric Rico, and Jeree Thomas, singled out several facilities which “exceeded” the standards and could serve as models for innovative practices elsewhere.

  • The Farmington Correctional Center in Missouri, which was praised by the auditor for its “impressive services” including assigning separate housing for youthful offenders;
  • The Lovelock Correctional Center (LCC), a prison in Nevada, which also contained a separate facility for young inmates, though it was limited to a small 20-bed unit;
  • The Wyoming Honor Conservation Camp & Wyoming Boot Camp.

But the study said legislators at the federal, state and local levels needed to develop more targeted policies to ensure the safety of young people involved with the justice system.

Recommendations included:

  • Passage of state bills to remove youth under 18 from adult facilities;
  • Restrict the use of solitary confinement of youth held in adult facilities, r otherwise moved youth to juvenile placements if “sight and sound” separation isn’t possible;
  • Shorten the 180-day “corrective action” period under PREA to ensure a swift response to safety threats.

The full report, entitled, “Is It Enough? The Implementation of PREA’s Youthful Inmate Standard,” can be downloaded here.

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