Three years ago, the Justice Department commissioned a study on the rate of sexual violence in juvenile prisons. The resulting study found that about 10% of inmates, mostly boys, reported experiencing sexual violence. Most of the victims reported females staff or inmates as their abusers.
That news came as a shock as the common perception is that male staff and inmates would commit most sexual violence. While the study itself garnered media attention, few focused on the findings about who committed the majority of the violence.
Around the same time, several groups petitioned Attorney General Eric Holder to offer broader support for the Prison Rape Elimination Act. Specifically, they wanted greater attention paid to this problem. Holder, however, allowed the deadline to pass before acting, so those requests remain in limbo.
In the three years since the study, prison rape has received more public attention, but it appears little has actually changed:
The Justice Department released its second report last month, and this time researchers surveyed more than 8,700 juveniles housed in 326 facilities across the country. In all, the facilities house more than 18,000 juveniles, representing about one quarter of the nation’s total number of youngsters living in detention centers.
Drawing on their sample, Justice Department researchers estimate that 1,390 juveniles in the facilities they examined have experienced sex abuse at the hands of the staff supervising them, a rate of nearly 8 percent. Twenty percent who said they were victimized by staff said it happened on more than 10 occasions. Nine out of 10 victims were males abused by female staff.
Nearly two-thirds of the abused youngsters said that the officials lured them into sexual relationships by giving them special treatment, treating them like a favorite, giving gifts and pictures.
Twenty-one percent said staff gave them drugs or alcohol in exchange for sex.
This poses a huge problem because not only does our culture turn a blind and often consenting eye to women’s violence against males, but also because the victims may not even view the abuse as abuse. This makes it very difficult to know how frequently the abuse occurs, let alone prevent it. When coupled with the social view that all boys sexually abused by women initiated the sexual contact or enjoyed it, boys who are willing to come forward may think twice to avoid the humiliation they would face for complaining.
What makes the situation worse is that these women are in a position of direct power and authority over these boys. The level of coercion at play can make it impossible for the boy to risk rejecting the woman’s advances. More so, many of these boys have already been abused and may have damaged boundaries. The staff in juvenile prisons are not just there to enforce the rules, but to also show the inmates what a proper, healthy relationship with an adult looks like. Staff who prey on the inmates pervert that, and only worsen whatever boundary issues the inmates already have.
The Prison Rape Elimination Act is meant to address these issues, yet it does not appear to have the reach or implementation it needs to have any tangible impact on this problem. It also appears that prison officials do very little to address the problem. While the new study shows a 2% drop in the rate of reported sexual violence by prison staff, that does not necessarily mean things have improved.
One of the reasons this may not concern many people is because people tend to think that whatever happens to inmates is acceptable. The inmates earned whatever punishment they receive, and many people think that the prison environment itself is part of that punishment.
Another reason is that the majority of the victims are boys. Our culture does not take sexual violence against boys seriously, particularly when it is committed by women.
The solution in this case is not to remove women completely from boys’ prisons, although it may be smart to limit their contact given the situation. What needs to happen is that women who rape and prey on inmates be taken seriously and punished to the full extent of the law. They should not get a pass because of their victims’ or their own sex, nor should we look for ways to blame the victims for being sexually exploited or manipulated.