Correction to This Article
The article misspelled the first name of South Carolina's corrections director, Jon Ozmint. The article also misstated the location of the Culpeper Juvenile Correctional Center; it is in Culpeper County, Va., not Fauquier County.

Justice study tracks rape, sexual abuse of juvenile inmates

By Carrie Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 8, 2010

The Justice Department reported Thursday that 12 percent of incarcerated juveniles, or more than 3,200 young people, had been raped or sexually abused in the past year by fellow inmates or prison staff, quantifying for the first time a problem that has long troubled lawmakers and human rights advocates.

The report comes as those advocates say that the Obama administration is moving too slowly on reforms that would reduce rape in U.S. prisons and as corrections officials are pressing Justice to overhaul reform proposals it is reviewing.

Four former commissioners on a blue-ribbon prison rape panel that spent years studying the issue say they fear that authorities are deferring to concerns by corrections officials that reforms would cost too much, while not focusing enough on prison safety and the effects of abuse on inmates.

The study by the department's Bureau of Justice Statistics reported a "very high rate of staff sexual misconduct" against juvenile inmates. It cited two facilities in Virginia and one in Maryland, among others.

"These figures are appalling," said Pat Nolan, president of Justice Fellowship, a group that advocates for prison reform. "We stripped a prisoner of their ability to defend themselves. They can't control where they go; they can't control whether the shower has a light bulb in it."

The report, based on surveys from 195 facilities in all 50 states and the District, is the first of its kind. Rates varied among the institutions, but at 13 detention facilities, nearly one out of three juveniles said they had been victims of some type of sexual abuse. National attention has turned increasingly to sexual assault within American prisons, which house more than 7 million inmates and cost $68 billion a year to operate. Other federal studies, which have been criticized by prison administrators, suggest that 60,500 adults are victims of rape or sexual misconduct in prisons each year.

In July, Michigan agreed to pay $100 million to settle a long-running lawsuit by women prisoners who said they were raped by state prison guards during the 1990s, and similar cases are proceeding in courts around the country.

Nearly seven years ago, Congress passed a law designed to reduce prison rape, establishing a commission to develop standards for state and federal prison leaders. Lawmakers said funding could be cut for prisons that failed to comply with the guidelines.

After more than four years of study, the commission issued its standards in June, triggering a one-year deadline for the Justice Department to put its stamp of approval on the guidelines. Now, more than six months later, the department is waiting on the results of a $1 million study on cost by consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton, and people briefed on the process say it could be the end of 2011 before senior leaders finalize the measures.

Former commissioners, in interviews, expressed concern that the Justice Department might be scrapping recommendations that already were the product of compromise by the panel.

Hannah August, a spokeswoman for the Justice Department, said that lawyers there are "working diligently" and planning sessions to reach out to victims, corrections officials and interest groups in the coming weeks.

"We're working hard on this -- it's just an ambitious date," she said of the June deadline. "I would characterize this as a priority of ours. It's a time-consuming process that needs to get done right."

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