In a groundbreaking study released last week by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, an unconscionable 12.1 percent of youth confined in juvenile detention facilities reported being sexually abused at their facility in the past year. Children locked up in Oklahoma fared even worse. Both Oklahoma facilities surveyed by the BJS, the Central Oklahoma Juvenile Center and the L.E. Rader Center, had rates of abuse higher than the national average.
Rader was investigated by the Department of Justice in 2005. Although they were denied entry to the facility, investigators discovered, among other problems, rampant sexual abuse by staff. It concluded that Oklahoma "fails to protect youth confined at Rader from harm due to constitutionally deficient practices.” Years later, 25 percent of children held there still report sexual abuse by staff.
Young and scared, incarcerated children typically lack the prison savvy to protect themselves — street smarts they shouldn’t even need, as the mission of youth detention systems is rehabilitation. This report shows that correctional systems like Oklahoma’s Office of Juvenile Affairs are failing in that mission.
Sexual abuse of children in detention is an affront to our most basic values. Those victimized suffer long-term psychological problems and serious medical conditions including HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. Often, they fall into a cycle of imprisonment and further abuse. These consequences ripple through their families and communities.
But there is hope. Prisoner rape is preventable. Some facilities are plagued by sexual abuse while others are virtually free from this type of violence — sexual abuse is not an inevitable part of juvenile detention. Stopping it is a matter of committed leadership, staff who understand professional boundaries, and strong policies.
Last June, an expert commission issued the first national standards addressing sexual abuse behind bars, specifying such policies and practices.