New York Times Op/Ed Room for Debate
Behind Bars, Teenagers Become Prey
JUNE 5, 2012
In early 2003, I testified on Capitol Hill with Linda Bruntmyer, a mother from Texas whose 17-year-old son was incarcerated after setting a trash bin on fire. In prison, he was raped repeatedly. He later hanged himself inside his cell. I felt a special bond with Linda, because I too had been raped in prison at 17. It could have easily been my mother standing there, urging Congress to end the travesty of sending juveniles to adult jails and prisons.
Most juveniles who serve time are eventually released. They will either be traumatized from sexual assault or hyper-violent from having learned to fend off the threat.
What happened to Linda’s son and me was far from unpredictable. Congressional findings in the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 posited that juveniles were five times as likely to be sexually assaulted in adult rather than in juvenile facilities — often within their first 48 hours of incarceration. Youth advocacy groups report that juveniles housed in adult facilities are 36 times more likely to commit suicide.
At the time I was sent to prison, for robbing a Fotomat with a toy gun, I was still a boy — physically, cognitively, socially and emotionally — and ill equipped to respond to the sexualized coercion of older, more experienced convicts. On my first day, I was drugged, gang raped and turned into sexual chattel.
Youth held in adult prisons are the hardest hit and easiest prey for sexual abuse. Placing juveniles in adult facilities has devastating consequences not only for the youth but also for the communities from which they came. Eighty percent are released before their 21st birthday, and 95 percent are released before they turn 25. They’re coming back into society indelibly marked by what they’ve experienced — either traumatized by sexual assault, or hyper-violent from having learned to fend off the threat.
The Centers for Disease Control reports that youth who are transferred to the adult system are approximately 34 percent more likely than youth retained in the juvenile court system to be rearrested for a felony. When research has shown young people kept in the juvenile system are less likely to re-offend, why do we keep making the same mistake?
There has been some progress. The standards that the Justice Department released last month, in accordance with the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003, prevent juveniles from being housed with adult inmates or having unsupervised contact with adult inmates in common spaces. The measures also recommend against solitary confinement as a means of protecting young inmates. But the standards stop far short of prohibiting the placement of minors in adult prisons, and largely ignore teenagers over 17.
There are an estimated 250,000 youth who are tried, sentenced or incarcerated as adults each year. Crime rates in the U.S. have gone down, but our prison populations have steadily climbed. Part of the solution is to do something different with the next generation of youthful offenders.