WASHINGTON — Nearly one out of every three youths at 13 juvenile detention facilities have reported some type of sexual victimization, according to a government study issued Thursday that found widespread reports of youth sex abuse at correctional centers.
Nationwide about 12 percent of youths held in state-run, privately run, or local facilities reported some type of sexual victimization, the Justice Department found in the first report of its kind. The rates varied widely between facilities.
Victimization included forced sexual activity with another youth and all sexual activity with staff.
"They were convicted of a crime. They have to serve time but they shouldn't serve time in a manner in which they're going to be abused or assaulted," said Troy Erik Isaac, 36, who said he was sexually assaulted in a California juvenile facility.
At 12, Isaac was sent to a juvenile center for vandalism, and within days his 16-year-old cell mate raped him during the night, he said. Isaac reported it and eventually was moved. But Isaac said the rapes continued as guards looked the other way and he became too afraid to fight back.
"It's a traumatizing experience for someone that is young. You take that with you wherever you go," said Isaac, who spent most of his life in and out of prison until he started a community service organization, Hands On Advocacy Group, two years ago.
About 26,550 juveniles are held in such facilities around the country, and the survey – conducted for the government by Westat, a company based on Rockville, Md. – collected information from about 9,000 of them via anonymous computerized questionnaire. The survey was conducted from June 2008 through April 2009 and asked whether the young inmates had been abused in the previous year of detention.
About 10 percent of youths surveyed reported abuse involving facility staff people, and nearly all of those complaints were against female staffers, who made up less than half of the workers. About 2 percent of the reported abuse involving other young inmates.
Although advocates said the level of abuse wasn't surprising, the prevalence of sexual abuse by staff, particularly female workers, was shocking, said Linda McFarlane, deputy executive director of Just Detention International, which fights to end sexual abuse of those who are detained.
"Many of these are already the most vulnerable and traumatized youth from all of our communities and they're placed for custody because they're considered to be a danger," she said. "If sexually abused in those very institutions that are supposed to help them prepare for life in the community, then it's just an incredible travesty."
The study identified six facilities where the survey found at least three out of every 10 inmates said they were sexually victimized while in custody: Pendleton Juvenile Correctional Facility in Indiana; Corsicana Residential Treatment Center in Texas; Backbone Mountain Youth Center in Swanton, Md.; Samarkand Youth Development Center in Eagle Springs, N.C.; Cresson Secure Treatment Unit in Pennsylvania; and the Culpeper Juvenile Correctional Center, Long Term, in Mitchells, Va.
Another seven sites reported nearly as high levels of sexual abuse or victimization: Victory Field Correctional Academy in Vernon, Texas; Indianapolis Juvenile Correctional Facility; Shawono Center in Grayling, Michigan; Woodland Hills Youth Development Center in Nashville, Tenn.; L.E. Rader Center in Sand Springs, Okla.; Bon Air Juvenile Correctional Center in Virginia; New Jersey Training School in Monroe Township, N.J.
The numbers were far different than the records kept by many states. Officials in several states, including Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Tennessee, New Jersey and Maryland, said they had very few or no substantiated complaints of sexual abuse in recent years at the facilities named in the report.
In New Jersey, the Juvenile Justice Commission has concerns with the Justice report, including "methodological problems often associated with self-reporting."
The Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice was shocked that it had two facilities on the list, spokesman Bruce Twyman said. In the last year, the department had increased training for staff and upgraded video surveillance to combat sexual abuse, he said.
"It's not something that we're proud of," Twyman said. "We look at it from this standpoint: Any sexual victimization is one too many so we want to be very aggressive about rooting it out, there's no question about that."
Indiana Department of Correction spokesman Doug Garrison said the agency saw the report as an opportunity to reinforce to staff and inmates that it has a "zero tolerance" policy toward sex.
"There's no such thing as consensual sex in a correctional facility, certainly not in a juvenile facility either," he said.
In Texas, the news comes amid major reforms following a widely publicized abuse scandal.
"We have a zero tolerance policy on sexual misconduct," said Jim Hurley, spokesman for the Texas Youth Commission. "This is a very important subject for us, and something we are on top of at the Texas Youth Commission."
During the time the survey was conducted the agency had 23 allegations of sexual misconduct. One was adjudicated and two remain open.
Genger Galloway, of Crockett, Texas, fought for many of the reforms that are in place now. Her son, Joseph, who was jailed for molesting his siblings at 15, said he was sexually assaulted by a female staff member and beaten and sodomized by a male inmate as a guard stood by in 2003.
Galloway lobbied the Texas legislature for change, but she said it was too late for her son.
"My son will never be the same," she said. "My son is full of hatred."
Staff sexual misconduct was higher in state-run facilities than in privately or locally operated sites, the study found, and smaller facilities tended to have fewer reports of sexual victimization.
Potter contributed from Richmond, Va. Associated Press writers Kelley Shannon contributed from Austin, Texas; Emery Dalesio from Raleigh, N.C.; Charles Wilson from Indianapolis; Dave Dishneau from Hagerstown, Md.; Travis Loller from Nashville, Tenn.; Beth DeFalco from Trenton, N.J.; and Ramit Plushnick-Masti from Pittsburgh.