Kids Vulnerable To Sexual Abuse In State Prisons

One of the most controversial aspects of the American system of incarceration is that many prisons operate on a for-profit basis — meaning that prison administrators have financial incentives to keep prisoners locked away for as long as possible. In Pennsylvania, this resulted in a “kids for cash” scandal where two judges were convicted for bribery when they sent kids away to juvenile facilities in return for money. The increased occupancy allowed administrators to reap the rewards until they were caught.

At face value, proponents of these for-profit systems tend to argue that keeping dangerous individuals locked away for longer is hardly a danger to society at large.

But others look at the rising tide of sexual abuse in juvenile prisons around the country. In juvenile prisons in particular, there is a concerning level of sexual activity — much of it defined as assault. In 2012, 9.5 percent of young adults housed in these facilities were sexually active. The number has fallen slightly in the years since, but is still an epidemic problem.

An anonymous lawyer for said the “kids for cash” scandal is one of the best examples of why the system needs changes at the most fundamental level: “Any system that allows others to profit from the incarceration of an individual who is supposed to have constitutional rights, both at the state and federal level, should be dismantled and rebuilt. We need change, and more people are starting to realize that.”

Former National Prison Rape Elimination Commission officer Brenda Smith said, “Sexual abuse of any kind, even with the best reporting system, is always underreported. There needs to be education. The kids need to have training. They need to have access to confidential ways of reporting. I don’t see it happening at the state level until there is a scandal.”

Executive Director of Texas Appleseed (a reform non-profit organization) Deborah Fowler said two years ago, “It’s just not a system that makes sense in 2020. We know a lot more today than we did [when detention centers were created] about what kids need and what works, and how to structure a system so that kids’ needs are being met and they are not being victimized.”

One of the biggest reasons why opponents of for-profit juvenile prisons say they don’t work is that judges act as both adjudicators and wardens — meaning they hold the authority both to shut these prisons down and send inmates to reside in them. This leaves the system without checks and balances that other aspects of government use to reign in power imbalances.

Fowler said, “I would like to see every single one of those youth prisons closed because I don’t believe they’re ever going to be effective or safe places for young people. The problem with the system is not that PREA, [a law that allows sexual assaults to be reported] is flawed, the problem with the system is that the system is flawed.”