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Thursday, Aug. 15, 2013 03:27 pm

Illinois addresses sex abuse in youth prisons

Fifteen percent of youth reported sex abuse

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ILLUSTRATION BY DENNIS BALOGH/MCT

Following a federal report showing high rates of sex abuse in Illinois’ youth prisons, the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice is moving to eliminate the problem.

In June, the federal Department of Justice released a report on levels of sexual victimization in juvenile detention facilities nationwide. Based on surveys of detained youth, the report placed Illinois among the top four states for sex abuse in juvenile prisons. In response, IDJJ created a multifaceted plan to better train its staff, give incarcerated youth a voice and submit to some outside scrutiny of its practices.

Illinois’ six juvenile prisons – known as “youth centers” – house less than 900 young inmates between the ages of 13 and 20 around the state. The prison in Warrenville is for female inmates, while the prisons in Chicago, Joliet, St. Charles, Harrisburg and Kewanee house only males.

The federal report found that the average rate of sexual victimization in youth prisons is 9.5 percent, but five of Illinois’ six youth prisons had higher rates, ranging from 13 percent in Warrenville to 21.1 percent in Joliet. In total, 15 percent of youth in Illinois juvenile prisons reported sexual victimization.

Surveyors used several criteria to screen for potentially false responses, such as youth reporting extreme height or weight, giving conflicting answers, or giving answers inconsistent with their physical sex. Obviously falsified responses were removed from the sample.

IDJJ director Arthur Bishop outlined the department’s plan to address the problem during a legislative committee hearing on July 30. The plan includes having a three-member panel of experts examine the department’s practices to bring them in line with federal standards under the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003. Staff will be trained to recognize and report sexual abuse, and youth will be given several options to report abuse, including a dedicated hotline.

The effort is part of a shift in how sexual abuse in prison is viewed by those in charge. In May 2012, the federal Department of Justice issued a final rule to implement the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003, decrying past disregard for the problem.

“For too long, incidents of sexual abuse against incarcerated persons have not been taken as seriously as sexual abuse outside prison walls,” DOJ said in issuing its rule. “In popular culture, prison rape is often the subject of jokes; in public discourse, it has been at times dismissed by some as an inevitable – or even deserved – consequence of criminality. But sexual abuse is never a laughing matter, nor is it punishment for a crime. Rather, it is a crime, and it is no more tolerable when its victims have committed crimes of their own.”

The rule threatens to revoke five percent of federal prison funding to states that don’t comply with the standards, unless a state promises to use that five percent solely for becoming compliant.

One of the standards under the federal law is maintaining adequate staffing to ensure inmates are protected from rape. For juvenile facilities, that means a ratio of one staff member for every eight inmates during the day and one staff member for every 16 inmates at night. That requirement doesn’t take effect until 2017, however, due to the cost and time required to hire qualified staff.

The standards also call for a ban on cross-gender body searches in most circumstances and showers that don’t allow staff of the opposite gender to view inmates naked. Staff and inmates alike are supposed to be trained to recognize and report sexual abuse, and screening of inmates is supposed to keep those at risk of being victimized away from those most likely to commit sexual abuse.

Arthur Bishop, the IDJJ director, told lawmakers in July that the department was already working on compliance with the federal standards before the report’s release. Already, the abuse reporting hotline has yielded at least 20 investigations. Most of the accusations were found to be unsubstantiated, Bishop said, though some are ongoing.

“The Department of Juvenile Justice has zero-tolerance for any type of sexual abuse, harassment or victimization, and is committed to providing safe, rehabilitative and appropriately secure environments for youth,” Bishop said. “Any amount or percent of abuse is serious and very concerning.”

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.

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