Juvenile Inmates Report Sexual Abuse At Detention Centers
LYNN NEARY, host:
Before we begin our next conversation, I just want to mention that it may contain language that might be disturbing to some listeners.
It's long been known that young people in juvenile detention facilities are vulnerable to sexual abuse. Now, a new report by the Justice Department gives a detailed picture of how widespread the problem is. In a national survey of about 9,000 juveniles held at detention centers around the country, about 12 percent said they had been sexually victimized by other inmates or staff.
For more on this report, I'm joined by Lovisa Stannow, executive director of Just Detention International, a human rights organization focused on ending sexual abuse in prisons and other detention facilities; and Troy Erik Isaac, a survivor of sexual abuse in juvenile detention. From the age of 12 to 18, Isaac was in and out of California juvenile detention facilities. Now 36, he has started the Hands On Advocacy Group, an outreach social services organization in Los Angeles. And they both join us from NPR West in Culver City.
Welcome to the program.
Ms. LOVISA STANNOW (Executive director, Just Detention International): Thank you so much.
Mr. TROY ISAAC (President, Hands On Advocacy Group): Thank you.
NEARY: Lovisa, let me begin with you. Twelve percent of respondents said that they had experienced sexual abuse in juvenile facilities. Were you surprised by the numbers you saw in this report?
Ms. STANNOW: I wasnt that surprised, but I was horrified. Twelve percent really highlights a major human rights crisis right here at home. That's almost one in eight kids, and the fact that the vast majority of the perpetrators of these acts of abuse were staff just makes the study even more alarming. These are the staff members whose very job it is to protect the youth.
NEARY: I was surprised by that as well, and I wondered why that would be.
Ms. STANNOW: There's several reasons why certain detention facilities have very high levels of abuse, and its important to note that sexual abuse in detention is not innate to life behind bars. It's not inevitable. On the contrary, it's preventable. And what we see is that facilities with very high levels of abuse tend to have poorly trained staff. They often have management that simply isn't committed to making sure that staff understand professional boundaries. And the study showed very clearly that some facilities have low levels of abuse or almost no abuse reported at all, and others had extreme levels, like one in three kids, one in four kids reporting that they had been abused in the past 12 months alone.
NEARY: One thing I wondered about the report of sexual abuse by members of the staff, there was a sort of different definition of what it meant to be victimized sexually by the staff. In other words, I think they only counted when an inmate was perpetrating sexual abuse and it was violent; whereas, with the staff, it was really any sexual interaction. Is that right? And why the difference?
Ms. STANNOW: That's correct. It's simply because any sexual contact between a staff member and a detainee is, by nature, sexual abuse - in that consent is simply not possible in a detention setting. The power deferential is way too big between the staff and inmates, when one part literally holds the key to the other party's freedom. And staff frequently claim that sexual activity is consensual. Some even go as far as saying that they were manipulated by the youth, and those excuses are not valid.
NEARY: And also, what does the report tell us about which inmates are most at risk?
Ms. STANNOW: Well, we see that when it's youth-on-youth inmate, gay and transgendered detainees, especially, are at extremely high risk for abuse. They tend to be targeted. When it comes to staff abuse, heartbreakingly, the main criterion there is a history of past abuse. And what that means is that easy targets are being identified by predatory staff. So that, for example, the kids who reported that they had been abused at a previous detention facility, 65 percent of those kids had also been abused again at the facility where they took the survey. And many, many of them had been raped or otherwise victimized more than 10 times, so we're talking about ongoing, repeated abuse of kids who already have a very troubled past.
NEARY: Troy Erik Isaac, I'd like to bring you into the discussion. As we mentioned earlier, you are a survivor of abuse during the time that you spent in juvenile facilities. Tell me a bit about what happened to you.
Mr. ISAAC: Sure. When I was around 12 years old, it was my first time going into a juvenile facility. At the time, I really didnt know what my sexual orientation was, but I knew that I was different. And when I went in, I met several other boys around my age. One, in particular, was from a very known gang. And about two or three days later, he forced me to oral copulate him in the shower area. I didnt know who to go to. No one - never informed me that this is how the juvenile facility runs. There was no preventative measures.
NEARY: Did you try to go to anyone? Did you try to report it, or did you just feel totally powerless in that situation?
Mr. ISAAC: There was a lot of fear. I felt fear in reporting anything because I didnt know if I was going to get killed or beat up. And I didnt know, at the time, that staff members were actually going to take me serious.
NEARY: So then, did this persist throughout the whole time that you were there? Is this just a situation that you never reported and therefore, had to just put up with the whole time you were in the detention facilities?
Mr. ISAAC: Well, in juvenile halls, I suffered rape about three times, and then I had to basically figure out what I was going to do to protect myself and to keep myself safe. So then that's when I started telling staff members that I was suicidal, cutting on my wrist with razors - or anything that I could find to draw some type of blood - to get out of that situation, and to go into isolation.
NEARY: If you are just joining us, youre listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about a new report from the Department of Justice about sexual abuse in juvenile facilities. And I'm joined by Troy Erik Isaac, an abuse survivor; and Lovisa Stannow, executive director of Just Detention International.
Troy, let me ask, were you surprised by anything that you saw in this report? When you read this report, did it surprise you at all?
Mr. ISAAC: No it did not surprise me, because this stuff happened when I was 12 and it's still happening now, and the juvenile justice system - these juvenile facilities - they dont believe in trying to prevent something before it happens. Then when it happens, they dont really like dealing with it when it does.
NEARY: Troy, does there need to be some kind of violence or coercion in order for it to be considered sexual abuse or sexual victimization?
Mr. ISAAC: No.
NEARY: How so?
Mr. ISAAC: I know personally, in my personal life, there have been people who have offered me things, such as candy; offered me something to eat. And when you take that, you basically owe someone something for it.
NEARY: Lovisa Stannow, does this report give any insight, really, into what can be done to help the kids within these facilities, if they are the victims of abuse, to deal with the aftermath of that?
Ms. STANNOW: Well, the report itself focuses on the prevalence and some of the basic dynamics of this type of abuse. We do however, know very well how to prevent sexual abuse in detention. And there are basic tools that are available. We know that if staff receive appropriate training, if those who do break the law, who do take advantage of their power over inmates, if they are punished for their crimes and for their acts, then levels of abuse will go down. We know that if - when the youth arrive at a facility, if it's taken seriously the fact that some are known to be likely victims and those are placed in a safe setting and not together with potentially predatory, much older youth, usually, we can really get this kind of abuse down.
NEARY: Lovisa, you said one solution might be to put the kids who are at - most at risk in separate quarters. But that seems like youre sort of punishing the victim. Why not separate or segregate those who are perpetrating the sexual abuse?
Ms. STANNOW: In the case of sexual abuse, the victim should not be punished again by being segregated. It's essential that it's the perpetrator who gets pulled out and placed in segregation. What I was referring to was at intake, when someone arrives at a facility, you need to make sure that you dont put the weakest and the youngest and the smallest and those who are the most afraid in a dorm, for example, with much, much older youths with a violent past - the way, in many ways, it sounds like Troy was set up. A 12-year-old boy arriving for the first time at a detention center should certainly not have to get sexually abused and raped. He should not have to fear for his life. He needs to have someone to go to if he's afraid. And the idea that you would, as a 12-year-old boy who's never been in detention before, have to fake suicide in order to become safe is just simply unacceptable.
NEARY: Troy, are you at all hopeful that with a report like this focusing some more attention on this issue, that something might, in fact, change in the juvenile justice system?
Mr. ISAAC: Yes, I am hopeful. I have, you know, my own recommendations, my own opinions how, if they implement certain things, can make it better. Hopefully, you know, one of those things is getting a vulnerable assessment format, where every juvenile that comes in there, they're assessed correctly and their life is taken into account. If we can make it more about that person -those persons - then we will be better.
NEARY: Troy Erik Isaac is president of Hands On Advocacy Group, which is based in Los Angeles. And Lovisa Stannow is executive director of Just Detention International.
Thanks to both of you for joining us.
Ms. STANNOW: Thank you so much.
Mr. ISAAC: Thank you.
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NEARY: And that's our program for today. Im Lynn Neary, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Lets talk more tomorrow.
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