We all have blind spots, and I think one of mine — shared by many other Americans, perhaps including you — has to do with prisons.
Over the years, I’ve written many columns about Guantánamo Bay, Abu Ghraib and torture, not to mention the abuses that go on in Chinese and North Korean prisons. But I’ve never written about the horrors that unfold in American prisons — especially juvenile correctional facilities — on a far larger scale than at Guantánamo.
Consider Rodney Hulin Jr., who was a 16-year-old when he was convicted of arson. A first-time offender and a slight figure at 5 feet 2 inches tall and some 125 pounds, he was sent to a men’s prison. There, he was the smallest person around. Within a week, he was raped, according to an account by Human Rights Watch, an advocacy group. The prison doctor ordered an H.I.V. test, since up to one-third of the inmates were H.I.V.-positive.
Rodney asked to be placed in protective custody, but he was denied. His father, Rodney Hulin Sr., picks up the story: “For the next several months, my son was repeatedly beaten by the older inmates, forced to perform oral sex, robbed, and beaten again. ... He could no longer stand to live in continual terror.”
Rodney Jr. hanged himself.
Maybe Rodney would have been safer in a juvenile correctional facility, but then again maybe not. A stunning new Justice Department special report, released just this month, underscores how widespread rape is in youth correctional facilities. It found that almost one youth in eight reported being sexually assaulted while behind bars in the last year.
That means that a child in custody is about twice as likely to be raped as an adult behind bars, based on similar surveys of adult prisoners. As The New York Review of Books wrote on its blog, we face a “crisis of juvenile prison rape.”
The National Prison Rape Elimination Commission, a blue-ribbon panel that issued its final report last year, described how a 14-year-old boy weighing 98 pounds was assaulted after he was made to share a cell with two older teenagers. Both were 6 feet 2 inches, and one weighed 160 pounds and the other 195 pounds.
Surprisingly, the new survey suggests that the biggest predators are not other inmates but prison staff — and female staff members offend as much as the males do. More than 10 percent of boys in juvenile correctional facilities said that they had had sex with staff, most of whom were women.
Among girls, almost 5 percent said that they had engaged in sexual activity with staff, most of whom were men.
Reggie Walton, a federal judge in the District of Columbia who led the prison rape commission, said that the figures may even be an undercount because of the stigma of rape. “I was shocked at the level of abuse,” he said.
One lesson from the surveys is that we should rethink the way male guards are sometimes assigned to female inmates, and female guards to male inmates, without sufficient respect for inmates’ privacy or dignity. That won’t stop same-sex violence or inmate-on-inmate abuses, but it would address one important component of the abuse problem.
By some accounts, the majority of guards at women’s prisons are now men. Investigators at one juvenile correctional facility found that a male guard watched as girls showered, while a woman watched over boys showering.
Jamie Fellner of Human Rights Watch, also a member of the prison rape commission, described a Virginia prison where men were stripped naked and asked to spread their buttocks in front of a female officer. When a male inmate asked to be searched in front of a man instead, Ms. Fellner said he was Tasered.
In the last few years, a growing number of states have limited the ability of guards to strip-search members of the opposite sex or watch them showering. And a landmark law, the Prison Rape Elimination Act, created Judge Walton’s commission, which has made excellent recommendations to reduce violence and abuse behind bars. The Obama administration should quickly implement those recommendations.
Surveys have found that well-managed prisons and correctional facilities with strong accountability have almost no rape, by guards or inmates. Others have astonishingly high levels. If we want to rehabilitate young offenders and help them get their lives in order, a starting point is to end the criminal abuse of them.
The legacy of Rodney Hulin Jr. should be a concerted drive to end the way inmates are raped with impunity behind bars. The survey results indicating the ubiquity of sexual assault behind bars, often by guards, should be an awakening — and an end to this blind spot that so many of us have shown. We need to be as alert to human rights abuses in our youth correctional facilities as to those at Guantánamo.