06/17/2010 05:57 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Sentenced to Prison, NOT to Sexual Abuse

Last week, a jury in Rancho Cucamonga condemned sexual abuse for children in prison as wrong and unjustifiable. The jury unanimously decided that the civil rights of Guillermo, Oscar, Alejandro, and Martin * had been violated by James Shelby, a former guard of the Heman G. Stark Youth Prison.

The young men's ordeal began in 1999 when they were first locked up at Stark, located near Chino, CA . For the next 5 years, the young men endured sexual abuse at the hands of a guard who was entrusted with their care. The young men spoke out against the abuse, filing complaints to the superintendent of the youth prison, to the director of Division of Juvenile Justice, (DJJ) and to the Office of Inspector General. The system ignored their pleas and the abuse continued.

More than 10 years later, a jury have given the young men some solace for their ordeal - more than a million dollars in damages and attorney fees- and judgments not only against James Shelby, but also the former superintendent of Stark, Xavier Ruiz, and the former director of the DJJ, Jerry Harper. Almost as important, the State and DJJ were found responsible not just for allowing this abuse to happen but also for enabling it by failing to protect the children in their care.

The young men who courageously fought for their rights are not alone in the abuse they endured. A recent report by the U.S. Department of Justice states that nationally, more than 1 in 10 youth have suffered sexual abuse by adults while incarcerated. These statistics are widely under-reported and many more young are brutalized every day from Indiana to Texas to the Stark case in California. How can we expect youth to emerge rehabilitated if we subject them to mistreatment and sexual violence while they are in prison?

In California, the DJJ is notorious for its destructive and abusive environment. True rehabilitation cannot happen in warehouse-like youth prisons that are scattered in some of the most isolated parts of this state. When youth are sentenced, we are told it is so they can turn their lives around. Sexual abuse should never be part of that sentence. The decision in the Stark Sexual Abuse case is one small step forward, however, many youth are still abused behind locked walls and the Juvenile Justice system is failing.

We have learned that the state intends to appeal the decision. Do not let California justify sexual abuse. Please stand with us in telling California Attorney General Jerry Brown not to appeal the decision in this case. Furthermore, ask him to stop using California's precious resources for the guards' defense.

The Juvenile Justice system in California and nationally is a long way from one where young people can turn their mistakes into motivation and get the education, therapy and training they need to turn their lives around. The validation of the basic truth that sexual abuse of young people is not tolerable is one small step in the right direction.

*The last names of the the victims have been omitted to protect the young men's privacy.