The sexual abuse to prison pipeline

Updated

More than 80% of the girls in some states’ juvenile detention centers suffered sexual or physical abuse before they were incarcerated, according to a new study released Thursday by the Human Rights Project for Girls, the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality, and the Ms. Foundation for Women.

In Oregon, the study found that 93% of imprisoned girls had a history of sexual or physical abuse, including 76% who were sexually abused before the age of 13. In California, 81% of jailed girls had been abused, including 45% who were raped or sodomized and 45% who were burned or beaten.

For many of those girls, the experience of abuse didn’t merely heighten their risk of incarceration but served as its fundamental cause – a phenomenon the report describes as the “Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline.”

In some cases, the criminalization of abuse is overt – in many states, girls as young as 13 can be arrested for prostitution. But the report points to a more prevalent and insidious way that experiences of abuse propel girls into prisons.

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According to the Justice Department, girls accounted for only 16% of all juvenile detainees in 2011, but made up nearly 40% of those detained for so-called status offenses – acts like running away, truancy, or alcohol possession, which only constitute crimes because of the perpetrator’s age.

“Inside juvie I met other girls like myself who were there for prostitution, running away, and truancy … We were not violent girls. We were girls who were hurting.”
Nadiuah Sjereff, former juvenile inmate
The report notes that these offenses, the most common crimes for which girls are arrested, are also among the most common symptoms of childhood abuse.

“What we see is a commitment on the part of law enforcement to arrest for non-violent status offenses that include truancy, running away, and loitering,” Malika Saada Saar, the executive director of the Human Rights Project for Girls, told reporters in a conference call. “All behaviors that correlate with childhood sexual abuse, with a child that is being abused and is trying to protect herself.”

The primary justification for jailing girls whose lawbreaking is caused by abuse is that juvenile detention centers can provide them with necessary rehabilitative services. But the report argues that “justification cannot counterbalance the significant psychological and physical harms created by commitment.”

“Inside juvie I met other girls like myself who were there for prostitution, running away, and truancy,” Nadiuah Sjereff, a former juvenile inmate, told the researchers. “We were not violent girls. We were girls who were hurting. Being confined to a tiny cement room was one of the hardest things I ever had to experience. Being locked up all I could do was reflect on my life but it didn’t seem to help. I became even more withdrawn and angry.”

Even if mental health services could compensate for the isolation of imprisonment, the vast majority of juvenile facilities fail to provide them. According to the Department of Justice, 88% of juvenile detainees reside in facilities that lack a single licensed mental health professional. And when facilities fail to recognize and accommodate the peculiar trauma of sexual abuse, they can cause active harm to victims in their custody.

In Thursday’s conference call, Lindsay Rosenthal of the Vera Institute for Justice recalled a girl she’d met on a recent trip to a detention center in California. Rosenthal had been warned by the facility’s staff that the inmate was a “troublemaker” who repeatedly refused to sit down when ordered and was on the verge of being charged with new crimes for fighting with her overseers.

But the week Rosenthal visited, the facility happened to be piloting an evidence-based health screening for incarcerated girls. The insubordinate girl was given an iPad, where she could disclose her concerns without having to say them aloud to a corrections officer. The screening revealed that the girl had been sexually assaulted days before her incarceration, suffering genital injuries that made the act of sitting severely painful.

“She wasn’t refusing to sit down because she was a troublemaker,” Rosenthal said. “She was refusing to sit down to protect herself from pain that no one, especially not a child, should ever have to endure.”

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The Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) is up for reauthorization by Congress this year, and the report proposes amendments that would address the plight of incarcerated girls.

Several of the proposals focus on improving the quality of life for abused girls in juvenile facilities, by expanding access to mental health and trauma services. Others focus on preventing such girls from being sent to facilities in the first place.

While the criminalization of young black and brown men has become a subject of intense critique and sociological study, the report argues that the over-policing of minority girls has been largely neglected.

When the JJDPA was first passed in 1974, the act prohibited youth from being incarcerated for status offenses. But in 1980, Congress added a loophole to that ban called the Valid Court Order (VCO) exception, which allowed for juveniles to be imprisoned for offenses like running away if a court has specifically forbade them from doing so.

Like many other punitive revisions to the criminal code over the last three decades, the VCO has been applied disproportionately to minority youth. Today, Native American girls are incarcerated at a rate of 179 per 100,000. For African-American girls that number is 123, while for non-Hispanic whites it is 37.

Ending the VCO and the incarceration of anyone under 18 for prostitution are two of the primary ways Congress can dismantle the so-called sexual abuse to prison pipeline, the report argues.

“What we need is a paradigm shift that says: We know how children respond to child sexual abuse,” said Rosenthaal. “And a girl that has been sexually abused and poses no risk to public safety should be connected to a public health intervention.” 

Prison and Sexual Assault

The sexual abuse to prison pipeline

Updated