The numbers are disturbing. During 2008 through 2009, 12 percent or 3,220 of the kids locked up in state or privately run juvenile detention centers reported that they had been sexually victimized by another kid or by facility staff.
Even more disturbing is that 10.3 percent stated they had had sexual contact with an adult staff member. Of that number, 1,150 kids said that sex or sexual contact was forced on them. All this according to the recently released National Survey of Youth in Custody (NSYC) report mandated by the Department of Justice as part of the Prison Rape Elimination Act.
Statistics have an odd way of getting to us.
On one hand, they’re just numbers; cut and dry; lifeless; boring to read; easy to lose track of. Yet they’re potent, almost like talismans that draw our attention to the truth beneath them.
I got to thinking.
The high school I went to had about that many kids, 3,000 plus. That was a lot of kids, especially when we packed the gymnasium for a basketball game or got herded into the auditorium for what our teachers felt would be yet another enriching speaker.
3,220 kids are boundless, shot through with life and energy, loud, and, most of the time, interesting and funny (that is if you don’t let them get on your nerves.)
But this report is talking about a different kind of kid.
3,220 locked up, locked away, locked down young people adjudicated to places they don’t want to be, in places that don’t really want them because nobody else wants them. Kids forced one way or another (perhaps just by the fact that they were young, disenfranchised, and in juvenile detention) to have sex or sexual contact mostly with adults.
Adults. The ones hired to take care of them. The ones trusted with their safety and security.
But I’m pretty sure those abused kids weren’t as shocked by their caretakers’ misconduct as the rest of us are. They’ve been letdown by adults all their lives. They’re use to being disappointed. So what else is new?
There’s been a quick and horrified response to the findings of this survey. The remarks I’ve heard and the comments I’ve read have been venomous to the extreme. The staffs of these detention centers have been described as animals, sadists, monsters, predators. “Think about it. Who else would take a job like that?” “What do you expect from a bunch of bullies and psychopaths?”
I’ve been there, and said the same things. When I first started teaching kids at a county penitentiary, I had the correctional staff pegged the same way. I had my own litany of synonyms for “lowlife.”
But it didn’t take me long to see that those correctional officers were just as much victims of a violent, degrading, inhumane system as the young kids I tried to educate and protect in what small ways I could.
COs had the power. They never forgot it. The kids I taught never forgot. And I never forgot it. But that power was really all they did have: power over the powerless in an institution that had the ultimate power to keep the keepers and the kept down.
In reality, every one of us is responsible for every one of those 3,220 kids. We Americans want our jails, our juvenile detention centers, to keep us safe. The system serves at our behest. But, as this report shows (and there have been far too many reports lately tabulating the abuses of our locked up children) the system serves none of us.
Imagine an auditorium full of those 3,220 victimized kids. What could we possibly say to them?