David Kaiser and Lovisa Stannow have a very troubling report in the New York Review of Books (via) on the incidence of prison rape both in adult and – more disturbingly – juvenile detention facilities across America. They call it one of the most important human rights issues facing our nation today, and I agree.

Probably the most troubling fact is that both adults and children report a much larger number of sexual assaults are at the hands of prison staff rather than other inmates. These abuses often go unreported and when they are reported are often ignored. Children who report abuse are often retaliated against by other inmates or by staff. The unwieldy state bureaucracies are typically either slow to act or purposefully attempt to cover up allegations of abuse. The article is long and defies easy quotation, but these numbers should help set the stage:

Across the country, 12.1 percent of kids questioned in the BJS survey said that they’d been sexually abused at their current facility during the preceding year. That’s nearly one in eight, or approximately 3,220, out of the 26,550 who were eligible to participate. The survey, however, was only given at large facilities that held young people who had been “adjudicated”—i.e., found by a court to have committed an offense—for at least ninety days, which is more restrictive than it may sound. In total, according to the most recent data, there are nearly 93,000 kids in juvenile detention on any given day.19 Although we can’t assume that 12.1 percent of the larger number were sexually abused—many kids not covered by the survey are held for short periods of time, or in small facilities where rates of abuse are somewhat lower—we can say confidently that the BJS’s 3,220 figure represents only a small fraction of the children sexually abused in detention every year. What sort of kids get locked up in the first place? Only 34 percent of those in juvenile detention are there for violent crimes. (More than 200,000 youth are also tried as adults in the US every year, and on any given day approximately 8,500 kids under eighteen are confined in adult prisons and jails. Although probably at greater risk of sexual abuse than any other detained population, they haven’t yet been surveyed by the BJS.) According to the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission, which was itself created by PREA, more than 20 percent of those in juvenile detention were confined for technical offenses such as violating probation, or for “status offenses” like missing curfews, truancy, or running away—often from violence and abuse at home. (“These kids have been raped their whole lives,” said a former officer from the TYC’s Brownwood unit.20) Many suffer from mental illness, substance abuse, and learning disabilities.

America imprisons more people than any other country in the world. Often prisoners of the American justice system are non-violent offenders. In the juvenile detention system, most inmates are non-violent offenders. Often they are runaways attempting to flee abusive situations. The tragedy of these children escaping rape at home only to face it once again in prison is truly heartbreaking, and a testament to a vast failure of policy in our justice system.

Fixing the American justice system will be no simple task. On the one hand we have seen a frightening rise in paramilitary police forces and SWAT teams across the country. Serving warrants to non-violent offenders with SWAT teams has become far too commonplace, and has led to the widespread shooting of pets and innocent victims. The escalation of the War on Drugs has not resulted in any decrease in the drug use in America, but has led to an increase in violence both here and abroad and especially in Mexico. Meanwhile, the many non-violent offenders jailed in the course of this war are faced with rape and sexual abuse once they’re placed behind bars.

Something has to give or we will no longer be able to refer to it as a ‘justice’ system with a straight face.