U.S. incarcerated boys report high rate of exploitation by female staff while in custody

The Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 (P.L. 108-79) requires the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) to develop national data collections on the incidence and prevalence of sexual violence within adult and juvenile correctional facilities. To fulfill that requirement, BJS statisticians have begun surveying incarcerated youth on their experiences of sexual violence while in custody.

Two reports made from these surveys are available on the BJS website: Sexual Victimization in Juvenile Facilities Reported by Youth, 2008-09 and Sexual Victimization in Juvenile Facilities Reported by Youth, 2012.

The two surveys produced similar results.

91% of adjudicated youth in both surveys were male. 9% were female.

Among youth in state juvenile facilities and large non-state facilities approximately 10.3% in 2008/9, and 7.7% in 2012 reported experiencing one or more incidents of sexual victimization by facility staff. This represented 58.3% of youth reporting sexual misconduct in the 2008/9 survey and 59.1% in the 2012 survey.

According to the reports, staff at the surveyed facilities was 42% female, 58% male in 2008/9 and 44% female, 56% male in 2012.

92% of respondents in 2008/9 and 89.1 in 2012 were males reporting sexual activity with female staff only, and another 2.5% in 2008/0 and 3% in 2012 said they had been victimized by both male and female.

Both reports indicated that black youth and were more likely to report being victimized by staff than any other ethnic group.

According to the 2008/9 report, the chance of a youth reporting sexual misconduct with staff doubled for those who had previously experienced sexual assault, and tripled for those whose previous assault had taken place at another juvenile facility.

88% of youth reporting staff misconduct in the 2008/9 report and  85.9% in 2012 reported more than one incident. The 2008/8 report states that 27% of this group reported more than 10 incidents. The 2012 report states that 20.4% reported 11 or more incidents. In both reports, approximately a third of youth reporting staff misconduct reported misconduct by more than one staff member.

78.9% of youth reporting staff misconduct in 2008/9 and 80.9% in 2012 said at least one incident occurred in a common area, such as a shower, recreation area, or closet.

In both surveys, nearly half of youth reporting staff misconduct said incidents took place between noon and 6:00 p.m., during daylight hours, though the majority (59% in 2008/9 and 53.5% in 2012) took place between 6:00 p.m. and midnight.

These surveys paint a pretty disgusting picture of the environment in America’s juvenile detention facilities, with sexual exploitation of youth taking place in broad daylight in common areas where it ought to be easier to prevent. Adding regularly checked video surveillance to common areas (aside from bathing facilities) would have a protective effect, both for youth, and for staff who face potential accusations. Creating policy barring female authorities and mentors from engaging with male inmates without an assigned witness would be even more effective, considering that over 90% of reported staff misconduct involved female perpetrators. In fact, an even more certain solution could be eliminating female staff altogether from facilities housing male inmates.

While some might object, calling such a drastic measure gender discrimination, it isn’t an unusual step to take. Male caregivers in facilities which house disabled women and girls are accustomed to being treated as suspect for the purpose of preventing sexual exploitation and some facilities do bar male employees from working alone with female patients or clients for the protection of both. Why should female employees at youth detention facilities be exempt from the same scrutiny and precautions, especially under the circumstances indicated by these Justice Bureau surveys? Do boys have less right to bodily autonomy and freedom from abuse?

The toll sexual exploitation can take on a boy does not receive the same consideration that is given when the victim is female. This is especially the case when the perpetrator is female. Many, sometimes including the boys themselves, wrongfully view the crime as harmless, or even a positive experience for the victim.

That misconception and the tolerance it has led to are extremely damaging, according to a review published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1998 by William C. Holmes, MD, MSCE and Gail B. Slap, MD, MS. “Sexual Abuse of Boys: Definition, Prevalence, Correlates, Sequelae, and Management.” The review compared and reported on the findings of 166 studies. Holms & Slap noted that sexually exploited boys, including those who did not consider themselves victims, presented an increased rate of a broad range of issues indicating trauma.

Victims experienced greater difficulty controlling sexual feelings and were hypersexual. They were more likely to engage in high-risk sexual behaviors such as unprotected sex, prostitution, and promiscuity. They had an increased rate of sexually transmitted diseases and partner pregnancy. According to several of the reviewed studies they had double the rate of HIV infection.

The reviewers also found an increased rate of post traumatic stress disorder, anxiety disorders, borderline personality disorder, paranoia, dissociation, somatization, anger, aggressive behavior, and poor school performance, gender role confusion, and insecurity about intimate partner relationships, with both men and women. The reviewed reports showed varying degrees of increase in victimized boys’ risk for drug and alcohol abuse, from double to as much as 44 times the risk, including an earlier start down that path.

The researchers reported that sexually abused boys experienced twice the rate of low self-esteem, behavioral problems, and antisocial personality disorder, are twice as likely to run away from home or have legal problems, and three times more likely to have bulimia. They were up to 5 times as likely to report sexually related problems, including sexual dysfunction. Victimized boys were four times as likely as others to experience major depression, and could be up to 14 times more likely to attempt suicide than nonabused males.

It’s clear, then, that sexual exploitation is not a lesser issue when the victims are male. While they may be conditioned, for whatever reasons, to remain silent about their trauma, it can be seen in the havoc it wreaks on their emotional state, their mental health, their perception of others, and their choices.

What is not clear is the reason the youth are still made vulnerable to exploitation by staff. Perhaps there is less empathy for the incarcerated. How easily does one become callous toward an impoverished 15 year old kid in a bad situation? Is erasing “kid” from your mental label and replacing it with “juvenile delinquent” all it takes?

If so, that is a terrible mistake.

Never mind that labels like “delinquent” and “inmate” don’t justify ignoring an individual’s humanity. Forget, if you will, that we are not talking about numbers on a page of information, but the rape of flesh and blood kids who depend on the adults around them for care, nurturing, guidance, and protection. Perhaps those who are heartless enough to disconnect from the imperative to protect children from abuse simply because the child in question is a troubled boy can visit this issue with a little cold, mercenary calculation.

Harvard University and the U.S. Navy both found that a tendency toward sexual predation is not a common male behavior. Ideologues promoting the belief that it is treat these studies as evidence that men don’t understand consent. However, what both of them actually show is that sexual predation by men is a rare behavior that most often presents in those who have developed an overall pattern of dysfunctional/criminal violence.

Multiple sources indicate that a history of sexual exploitation by females during youth is a significant risk factor for later perpetration of sex crimes by men. In addition to the studies mentioned in the linked article, the same connection is also reported here and here. The Holms and Slap review also noted that sexually abused males were 4.4 times more likely to have forced someone into sexual contact than nonabused males. Although these various sources contain a variety discussions on the characteristics of sex offenders and their implications, that risk factor is a common thread in all of them.

Not all sexually abused boys will grow up to become sex offenders. The majority of them don’t, so sexual abuse during youth is far from a 100% certain predictor. However the data indicates that it is one influencing factor; a push in the wrong direction. Subjecting boys who are already at risk for developing dysfunctional, violent behavior patterns to sexual abuse is likely to increase the percentage of them who go on to commit sex crimes.

In those most at-risk cases, sexual exploitation of boys may be making youth facilities a training camp for future perpetrators. They are not only taught a lack of compassion by staff taking advantage of their subordinate position. They’re taught to experience sexual intimacy through manipulation, as a form of abuse, or as a transactional exchange. They’re given hands-on training in methods of predatory exploitation, with much of the reported abuse including grooming processes, pressure and intimidation, and/or quid-pro-quo arrangements. This curriculum from hell, regardless of whether it leads to future crimes or not, is guaranteed to have an impact.

It shouldn’t take concern over how boys’ behavior might be affected by abuse they suffer while incarcerated. These are some of America’s most vulnerable kids. They’re in corrective facilities because the systems children must depend on to help them grow and develop have at some point failed them. Many of them have been placed in detention facilities after being removed from impoverished, violent environments or situations of neglect. Many enter these facilities with mental health issues. In taking custody, the state is taking responsibility for succeeding where whatever failing points in that system could not. Allowing them to be abused by staff is an egregious human rights violation, an ethics failure, and a failure to uphold the responsibility that is accepted in the act of taking custody of a minor.

This should never happen. It is not that difficult to prevent.
It’s time measures were taken to ensure that it stops.

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