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The Progressive

Sexual Abuse of Incarcerated Youth Must End

Lovisa Stannow

We must put a stop to the rape of young people behind bars.

When the government removes someone’s freedom, it takes on an absolute responsibility to keep that person safe, including from sexual violence. When the detainee is a child, that duty to protect becomes especially critical.

Yet a new government study reveals that an appalling number of youth are raped while in detention — more often than not at the hands of the very officials who are sworn to keep them safe.

According to a unique national survey of detained youth, conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, more than 12 percent of children behind bars reported being sexually assaulted in the previous year alone. That comes to thousands of young people, grievously harmed.

Sexual violence shatters the lives of children, dramatically altering the way they perceive themselves and their world. Without help, survivors struggle with shame, anger and isolation. For many, sexual abuse leads to long-term emotional trauma, trapping countless boys and girls in lives of poverty and petty crime.

Rape behind bars is preventable. Some juvenile facilities are plagued by sexual abuse while others are virtually free from this type of violence. What distinguishes the latter tends to be committed management, staff who respect professional boundaries, and strong policies.

For example, facilities that consistently separate detainees who are vulnerable to sexual abuse (such as gay youth) from likely predators are able dramatically to reduce sexual violence.

Last June, an expert commission issued the first-ever national standards addressing sexual abuse behind bars. Mandated by a federal law — the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 — the standards were formulated with the input of corrections experts, advocates and prisoner rape survivors.

The standards address core corrections management issues such as staff training, inmate education, housing, investigations and medical and mental health care in the aftermath of an assault. The Prison Rape Elimination Act stipulates that the U.S. attorney general take no more than a year to review the standards before finalizing them as federal regulations.

Unfortunately, however, Attorney General Eric Holder has failed to take decisive action on this. Now it appears that the administration will need extra time to formalize the standards — perhaps as much as a year. That’s another year in which thousands of children will be sexually abused in juvenile detention facilities. Such a delay is unconscionable.

Sexual abuse of children in state custody is a serious human rights violation and an affront to our society’s essential values. With the power to stop these violations, there is no excuse for dawdling. It’s time for President Obama and Holder to demonstrate their commitment to ending this heinous violence, by quickly codifying the national standards before them.

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Lovisa Stannow is the executive director of Just Detention International, a human rights organization working to end sexual abuse in all forms of detention. She can be reached at

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