Teens should be out and about reading books, playing sports and enjoying the finer things in life as they prepare for their transition to adulthood. Unfortunately, all too many children in the United States are growing up behind bars; almost 100,000 children across the U.S. are detained in various facilities for both children and adults on any given day, with that statistic going up for children of color such as Black and Latino children.
It’s bad enough that so many potentially promising young members of our society are imprisoned: it gets even worse when you start looking at what children and teens endure in prison. Like their adult counterparts, they have limited access to educational opportunities, and often don’t get adequate health care and balanced nutrition. And, like their adult counterparts, they’re also at a very high risk of rape, sexual assault and abuse.
Popular narratives about prison rape often describe it as an inmate-on-inmate problem, but the issue actually centers around guards, supervisors and other prison staff too. In the case of children, that includes counselors, teachers and other people who are supposed to help juvenile inmates get their lives back on track. The very people sent to intervene in the juvenile justice system, in other words, are sometimes making it even more of a living torment for inmates.
According to a grim survey conducted by the Department of Justice, fully 20% of teens who report assaults in juvenile detention facilities and group homes have been assaulted 10 or more times. This is not a case of isolated incidents or some untrustworthy personnel, but indicative of a serious systemic problem that urgently needs to be addressed. It illustrates how the United States is failing its youth at every level of the juvenile justice system, from attempts to divert foster children into safe care before they enter the so-called “cradle-to-prison pipeline” that snaps up low-income children (usually those of color) to safety standards at juvenile institutions.
The report indicates that when it comes to juvenile sexual assaults and rapes, the rate of staff-on-inmate violence is three times higher than that of adults, showing that children are viewed as easy or soft targets. Looking at individual cases of abuse, a pattern of grooming and then repeated abuse appears, showing that staff members are carefully cultivating their victims with gifts, special favors and other signs of preference before abusing them, and that once they start sexually assaulting them, they usually continue to do so.
Teens and children in detention are very literally captive prey. Since they occupy a marginalized position thanks to their criminal history, typically lower economic class, and, often, racial background, children and teens in the juvenile justice system may not be taken seriously when they report sexual assault and abuse. This makes it hard to track the true numbers on abuse — as with in the adult prison system or the civilian population in general, the actual rate is likely much, much higher than the reported rate, suggesting that life in the system is even more dire than the report indicates.
The United States struggles to care for its youth, choosing to shut down schools, increase class sizes, rely heavily on dangerously flawed schools tests, and limit opportunities for many youth in response to budgetary problems and shifting social priorities. Under these conditions, it seems nearly impossible to imagine that the juvenile justice system will improve, making it a healthy and safe place for inmates, but it must, and the Department of Justice is responsible for ensuring that it will.
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