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.
Fully 80 percent of the sexual abuse reported in the study was committed not by other inmates but by staff. And surprisingly, 95 percent of the youth making such allegations said that they were victimized by female staff. Sixty-four percent of them reported at least one incident of sexual contact with staff in which no force or explicit coercion was used. Staff caught having sex with inmates often claim it’s consensual. But staff have enormous control over inmates’ lives. They can give inmates privileges, such as extra food or clothing or the opportunity to wash, and they can punish them: everything from beatings to solitary confinement to extended detention. The notion of a truly consensual relationship in such circumstances is grotesque even when the inmate is not a child.