Archive: Feb 2010

The New York Times just ran an interesting story that offers a nice follow-up to the numbers Chris posted on victimization in juvenile facilities.  The story, “A Glimpse Inside a Troubled Youth Prison,” tells about the experiences of a young man named Edwin during his incarceration in a juvenile prison.  By Edwin’s account, he “feared for his safety, received little counseling and left no better prepared for life outside than when he arrived there.”

The story relates many problems: the constant threat of violence – particularly for young and vulnerable inmates; inadequate health care and counseling; over-medication of youth; and issues stemming from a volatile young staff.   Edwin also points out that he was a difficult “client” of the juvenile system, but he did manage to develop close relationships with individual staff members.  In the end, the story reports that Edwin doesn’t blame the institution – he never expected much in the first place.  At age 18, he is now trying to build a life on the outside; he earned his GED and is considering college.

Much of my research has dealt with life inside juvenile prisons and this short news story is a good introduction to many of the issues facing administrators, staff, incarcerated youth, and concerned community members.  The commissioner of the agency that runs New York’s juvenile prisons is quick to acknowledge the problems; she is quoted in the story as saying: “Unfortunately, that is the experience of many young people in the system…I have absolutely no reason to question his individual experience. They deserve better…(Edwin) makes my case for transformation of the juvenile justice system. He makes my case for why we need change.”

So the case for transformation is  made in a very public forum.  But, the administrator’s statement raises more questions than answers: what might this transformation look like and when might it take place?  Can we expect significant changes in the near future?  And, finally, how will the agency be accountable to the public(s) it serves?

The Bureau of Justice Statistics just released a new report on Sexual Victimization in Juvenile Facilities based on a sample of over 9,000 adjudicated youth in 2008-2009. Overall, about 12 percent of youth in these facilities report some form of sexual victimization by staff or other residents. Many of these involved contact between female staff and male youth where no force is involved. Nevertheless, 4.3 percent of the youth reported being sexually victimized by facility staff who used force, threats, or other explicit forms of coercion.

I charted a couple of the differences in victimization by staff and other residents below. Male residents are more likely to report sexual victimization by staff (10.8%) than other residents (2%), while the reverse pattern holds for female residents. And sexual orientation is an important predictor: over 20 percent of “non-heterosexual” youth reported some form of sexual victimization, with 12.5 percent reporting victimization by other youth.

The report “names names” by identifying the rate of sexual victimization in particular institutions (as well as the survey response rate in each institution). In the Minnesota Correctional Facility at Red Wing, for example, about 2.8 percent of youth reported sexual victimization. In Pendleton Juvenile Correction Facility in Indiana, in contrast, the rate was over 36 percent.

While such surveys are now mandated by the Prison Rape Elimination Act, I’m both disturbed by this report’s statistics and impressed by its clear and unflinching presentation.