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.

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 pmproj@progressive.org.

Add new comment

By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.


White supremacist posters on campuses play on ignorance and fear within the very institutions that should be our...

Trump's politics are not the problem.

By Wendell Berry

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more 
of everything ready made. Be afraid 
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery 
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card 
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something 
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know. 
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord. 
Love the world. Work for nothing. 
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it. 
Denounce the government and embrace 
the flag. Hope to live in that free 
republic for which it stands. 
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man 
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers. 
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.

Say that the leaves are harvested 
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus 
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion—put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come. 
Expect the end of the world. Laugh. 
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts. 
So long as women do not go cheap 
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy 
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep 
of a woman near to giving birth? 
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head 
in her lap. Swear allegiance 
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos 
can predict the motions of your mind, 
lose it. Leave it as a sign 
to mark the false trail, the way 
you didn’t go. Be like the fox 
who makes more tracks than necessary, 
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Wendell Berry is a poet, farmer, and environmentalist in Kentucky. This poem, first published in 1973, is reprinted by permission of the author and appears in his “New Collected Poems” (Counterpoint).

Public School Shakedown

Progressive Media Project