Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
By Liz Ryan and Nichole Yunk Todd
July 11, 2016
This week’s U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics new report on sexual victimization of youth locked up in the juvenile justice system confirms what we already know about youth prisons: They aren’t safe.
According to the BJS report, rates of sexual victimization of incarcerated youth in the juvenile justice system have increased over the last decade. Allegations per year have more than doubled: from 19 per 1,000 youths in 2005 to 47 per 1,000 in 2012. While this may be partially explained by higher levels of reporting abuse by youths as a result of staff training, improved protocols and awareness activities related to implementation of the Prison Rape Elimination Act, these rates are still unacceptably high. Despite the federal statute, the reality is that young people are unsafe in youth prisons that cannot fully protect them from sexual victimization.
The abuse of young people in state care is not only morally reprehensible; it severely undermines any potential for rehabilitation. Large facilities, often called anything other than a youth prison — institute, study center, training school, industrial school, development center — are the signature feature of a juvenile justice system designed to warehouse kids, the vast majority of whom do not pose a serious threat to public safety. We cannot possibly expect a deeply flawed model dating back to the 1820s — before the invention of the telephone, the light bulb, or aspirin — to do anything other than further damage our youths, leaving them more likely to be traumatized and reoffend.
The BJS report shows that higher sexual victimization rates tend to be concentrated in youth prisons and juvenile detention facilities, as compared to other facilities such as group homes. Especially troubling is that youth facilities holding 25 or more youths report much higher rates of sexual misconduct by staff members.
An example is the Lincoln Hills facility in Irma. One of the largest youth prisons in the country with capacity for more than 550 youths, Lincoln Hills has been the subject of federal and state investigations in the last 18 months over alleged abuse, including sexual victimization, of youths. News reports of these investigations by the U.S. Department of Justice and Wisconsin state agencies reference sexual abuse of youths, use of pepper spray, strangulation and suffocation of youths, intimidation of youths to discourage reporting, and tampering with state and county laws concerning youth institutions.
And there is more that has yet to be uncovered as the state hasn’t fully investigated allegations of sexual assault. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported last month that “The security director at Lincoln Hills School for Boys acknowledged to state investigators that he had failed over 7½ months to review any investigations of sexual abuse and had met just once with the staff tasked with investigating allegations of assault.”
Finally, the BJS report states that youth facilities with higher rates of sexual assault do not have enough staff to monitor what takes place in the facility. This issue would appear to be remedied by implementing the new staffing ratios in early 2017 under PREA that require one staff to eight youths in youth facilities. However, the report also notes that individual youth characteristics such as victimization history, sexual orientation, gender and offense history are more important factors in predicting sexual victimization than facility factors such as staffing ratios. Simply put, adding more staff to youth prisons and other facilities won’t end sexual victimization of incarcerated youths.
Implementing PREA can reduce abuse, but it doesn’t go far enough. Rather than focusing on what the right staff-to-youth ratio in youth prisons is needed to fully protect youths from sexual victimization, we should be investing in an array of community-based alternatives to incarceration. There is an overwhelming body of research that shows that community-based alternatives to incarceration are more cost-effective, produce better outcomes for youths and make communities safer than do youth prisons. Research shows that youth prisons can cost up to $150,000 per youth per year and produce high reoffending rates for incarcerated youths, thereby making communities less safe.
Milwaukee groups, including Youth Justice Milwaukee, a coalition of community members, families with children who have been incarcerated and local and national youth justice advocates, are calling for removal of youths from Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake and for the placement of these youths in community-based alternatives to incarceration.
Building a youth prison closer to Milwaukee will not decrease the criminogenic risk of, and build prosocial protective factors around, these youths, regardless of the good intentions of those who propose to operate it. It will perpetuate cycles of abuse, trauma and recidivism for children whose brains are developing and whose behaviors we are influencing in one of the most anti-social environments possible. Another frightening prospect is that the close proximity of a local prison also will widen the net of Milwaukee youth whom we incarcerate.
By investing in community-based alternatives to incarceration and dismantling the youth prison approach to juvenile justice, we can keep youths and communities safe.
Liz Ryan is president and CEO of Youth First, a national advocacy campaign to end the incarceration of youth. Nichole Yunk Todd is an active member of Youth Justice Milwaukee.