House Holds Hearings on Prison Sexual Abuse
And if the statistics in the BJS reports are not enough, I ask you to consider one of these children, who have been beaten, assaulted and raped with no recourse or power to stop it, what if that child was the child’s picture you carry in your pocketbook or wallet? … Perhaps then we would not continue to hold hearings, create another commission or issue more reports.
— Grace Bauer, prepared testimony for House Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security, Feb. 23, 2010.
Last month, the Bureau of Justice Statistics issued a troubling report showing that 12% of youth held in juvenile detention facilities report being the victim of sexual abuse, whether by other youth or staff. (New York Times columnist Ross Douthat covered this issue last week; the New York Review of Books published a lengthy discussion of the report here, and Public Criminology crunched the numbers here.) As I’ve blogged about before, the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995 exacerbates the problem by making it very hard for juveniles who’ve been abused to seek judicial relief. The Prison Abuse Remedies Act (H.R. 4335), sponsored by Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) and supported by the ACLU, would remove the PLRA’s procedural hurdles for juveniles under 18.
Yesterday, the House Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security held hearings on preventing sexual assault in juvenile and adult prisons. The witness list included American University law professor Brenda Smith; Troy Erik Isaac, who was raped while in juvenile custody in California (NPR interviewed him here); Bernard Warner, head of California’s juvenile justice system; Sheriff Gabriel Morgan of Newport News, Va.; and Grace Bauer, whose son was adjudicated delinquent and who works with the Campaign for Youth Justice. After the jump I’ll provide some highlights from their prepared testimony.
Gabriel A. Morgan, Sheriff, Newport News, Va.:
Upon taking office, I was faced with an overcrowded jail that the National Institute of Corrections called a “ticking time bomb.” I had over 700 inmates in a facility that was designed for 248. Every time a juvenile was transferred to my custody it was a nightmare. For the protection of the juvenile, I had to move adult prisoners into already overcrowded blocks, further creating an added danger to the adult inmate and the correctional staff.
This situation was further complicated by the fact that almost 30% of the adults in my facility suffered from some form of mental illness. I lacked the professional staff to adequately deal with this population. … There are plenty of juveniles who have fallen victim in adult facilities. In my state of Virginia a juvenile can be tried as an adult at the age of 14 and they are subject to the same facility as an adult offender.
After both rapes, I didn’t know who to go to. I was scared to tell anyone because I didn’t know if I would get killed or beaten up. I didn’t know if staff members would take me seriously. No one informed me that this was how the facility ran.
I realized I needed to figure out what to do to protect myself and keep myself safe. Guards knew what was happening and looked the other way; I was too afraid to fight back. So I started telling staff members that I was suicidal; I would cut my wrists — anything to get out of that situation and get into isolation. I found myself in situations I could not handle. People would take advantage of me and I just didn’t know how to get help.
Being attacked and not receiving support from the adults in charge turned my world upside down. It’s a traumatizing experience for someone that is young. I take that with me wherever I go.
Grace Bauer, Campaign for Youth Justice:
In 2001, my 13 year old son – who weighed 90 pounds soaking wet – was adjudicated delinquent and sentenced to five years in a Department of Corrections facility. My son’s crime was stealing a stereo out of a truck with two other boys. … [He was held in a facility] five and half hours away from where we lived and many times we traveled all five and half of those hours only to be told our son was denied visitors that day or that he was in the infirmary and we would not be able to see him. The times we did see him, we saw the evidence of the physical abuse he was enduring day after day, mostly at the hands of poorly paid and under trained staff. Black eyes, broken teeth, burst ear drums, broken jaws, broken arms were the daily circumstances of these young people; 140 kids a month were being treated for serious injuries.
Every day that passes without these policies in place, countless numbers of children suffer. And if the statistics in the BJS reports are not enough, I ask you to consider one of these children, who have been beaten, assaulted and raped with no recourse or power to stop it, what if that child was the child’s picture you carry in your pocketbook or wallet? Try for just a few moments to understand the fear you would have for your loved one in a similar situation. Imagine too the complete helplessness of having no way to stop the sickening violence or even having a way in which to address it.
Perhaps then we would not continue to hold hearings, create another commission or issue more reports. Instead, I believe if these were your children, we would do what is right and take action immediately to protect our future and the lives of all of our children.