Sexual Abuse Persists In Juvenile Detention Centers

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More than one in 10 juveniles under the age of 18 are sexually abused while in detention, according to government data. Reginald Wilkinson, former director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, recently sat on a Justice Department panel aimed at figuring out ways to curb the abuse. He points to a culture of ambivalence and poor standards.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

The World Cup soccer tournament kicks off Friday in Johannesburg, and we're about to check in on some American college journalists tracking the preparations and viewing troubled and beautiful South Africa with their own perspectives. We'll have that conversation in just a few minutes.

But first, we're going to go Behind Closed Doors. That's the part of the program where we talk about things that are often kept hidden. And a warning about what we'll be talking about for the next few minutes. It's a phenomenon among many of this country's juvenile detention systems: sexual assault and rape.

Fully 12 percent of juveniles under the age of 18 fall victim to some forms of sexual abuse while in detention. That's according to the government's own numbers. A Justice Department initiative, called the Review Panel on Prison Rape, wound up two days of hearings on Friday aimed at learning just what are the best practices for preventing assault, and what are the least effective.

Reginald Wilkinson is one of the three panel members. He's the former director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction. He now heads up the Ohio College Access Network, but remains active on prison and detention issues. He's with us now. Welcome, thanks for joining us.

Mr. REGINALD WILKINSON (President and CEO, Ohio College Access Network): Glad to be here.

MARTIN: Can I just ask you: Before you started working on these issues, on this panel, did you believe this was an extensive problem in the juvenile detention system?

Mr. WILKINSON: Well, good question. Actually, early on, 2004, I was pretty critical of the process because I thought that some of the numbers that were being bandied about by activists were way off. Certainly, no one who administers a corrections program in this nation condones any kind of sexual assault in correctional institutions, but we thought the numbers were exaggerated. So it doesn't matter today. What matters today is one is too many in a correctional environment. So early on, I was a skeptic - to say the least.

MARTIN: And now what do you think?

Mr. WILKINSON: Well, like I said, I think one sexual assault in correctional environments - whether it's juvenile, adult or jail - is one too many. And I think that, you know, we can't do too much to prevent any kind of molestation inside of environments that we have control over.

MARTIN: Now, the whole idea of prison rape as a phenomenon of the adult system is almost a cliche. Now, I think most decent people recognize that it's wrong. But in the juvenile system, I don't think anybody would think that it's acceptable or appropriate to have this kind of behavior going on at all. I mean, it's not appropriate for anybody. But I think most people would understand that there's a particular duty to care for juveniles.

So one of the things I was curious about in the course of these hearings is, were there certain circumstances that led these practices to be more common than others in juvenile facilities?

Mr. WILKINSON: Well, it certainly caught the practitioners off guard as well, in terms of why the excessive numbers in juvenile correctional institutions. And actually, the numbers are basically the same, or statistically the same, in adult and juvenile facilities when it refers to inmate-on-inmate sexual assaults and juvenile-on-juvenile sexual assaults.

The difference in the juvenile environment is that there are more staff who have improper relationships with juveniles. And that makes up the difference between the number that we found in adult facilities as opposed to juvenile facilities.

MARTIN: Well, I wanted to ask you about that. That was going to be my next question. According to the report - that something like 80 percent of the reported abuse was perpetuated by staff. Now, what is that about?

Mr. WILKINSON: We would love to know because it certainly caught the field off guard. Certainly, the juvenile correctional administrators are trying to figure it out. Governments are trying to figure it out; legislators are trying to figure it out. And on the surface, it doesn't look as if they're doing anything any different than anybody else.

They do the background checks. They have training sessions. So now, we're having to dig deep and look into personality issues, psychological issues to see whether or not any of these youth are just more vulnerable by staff, instead of adult inmates not having the same vulnerabilities. So there are a lot of issues to study.

MARTIN: So you really just don't know.

Mr. WILKINSON: We really just don't know.

MARTIN: Well, the other thing that was interesting about the report, it indicated - this is, you know, I cited this overall figure of 12 percent reported at least one incident of abuse. But there was a wide variation in the experience of abuse. There were two facilities highlighted that had very low rates. And there were three with very high rates. In the worst facilities, one in three youth reported being victimized. And you just can't figure out what it is they're doing differently?

Mr. WILKINSON: Well, that's up to the agency that manages that facility. The reason we are conducting the federal hearings is because we want to bring this to the open. We want people to understand that this is not just a passing fancy in terms of managing correctional facilities. We want people to know that it's something that needs to be paid attention to - and close attention, at that.

And so as we are conducting these hearings, people who are running facilities across the country are looking differently at how they're running those facilities. They're looking at their surveillance. They're looking at their policies. They're looking at how offenders and staff are trained to make sure that they have the state-of-the-art information, in an attempt to prevent any kind of sexual assault inside our correctional institutions.

MARTIN: Can you explain to people why this matters, particularly as a person who is a former skeptic? Because there are those who would say, well, you know what? That's unfortunate, that's a shame. But what would you say, as a person who has worked in this field for quite a long time, to explain to people why it matters - apart from the fact that it's just wrong?

Mr. WILKINSON: Well, it matters because whether you're in prison or not, persons who are under correctional custody are still citizens of this country. So we have an obligation to protect these persons from harm, and it is not acceptable that we allow it to take place when there are ways that we can prevent it.

MARTIN: And finally, what should have turned your mind around about this - as a self-described former skeptic - about this? I mean, you thought that this was probably an exaggerated phenomenon. You didn't really believe that the numbers were as they were described. And then you started doing this work, and it kind of changed your mind about it. What is it that you think changed your mind?

Mr. WILKINSON: Well, I think that when you start looking - the Prison Rape Elimination Act early on, we thought, was just kind of a passing fancy. OK, this, too, shall pass. But it became something much bigger than just managing prison rape. I now believe that when we conform to and abide by issues related to standards that are attached to the Prison Rape Elimination Act, then what we do is not just, you know, prevent sexual assault inside correctional institutions. We actually improve the system.

So to me, there's a systemic value to making sure that whatever it is that we put in place, that if we can rehabilitate persons, that we can have safer institutions, then I'm all for it.

MARTIN: Reginald Wilkinson is the former director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction. He spent 15 years in that position, and more than 30 in the department. He's a member of a three-person panel, the review panel on prison rape advising the Justice Department. He joined us from member station WOSU. Thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. WILKINSON: You're welcome.

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