More Than 1,000 Kids Are in Adult Prisons, Putting Them at Risk of Rape

A new report chronicles the work ahead for getting juvenile offenders out of the adult system.
(Photo: 'Christian Science Monitor'/Getty Images)
Dec 3, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

On any given day, there are roughly 1,200 kids locked up in adult state prisons. It might be tempting to assume these kids are dangerous “superpredators,” housed with adults because their crimes were so heinous, but a new report from juvenile justice reform advocacy group the Campaign for Youth Justice shows that’s just not true—and incarcerating youths with adults has measurably bad results.

“Kids housed in adult prisons aren’t the worst of the worst,” the report’s author, Carmen Daugherty, told TakePart. “The vast majority of them are there for simple assault or robbery, which begs the question, should they be there in the first place? We say absolutely not.”

Just 5 percent of kids serving time in an adult facility are there for a violent offense, Daugherty added. Youths of color, who are already overrepresented in the juvenile justice system, are much more likely to be placed in adult facilities—58 percent of the roughly 1,200 kids in these prisons are black, she said.

While the adult federal and state prison populations have boomed nationwide, leading to overcrowding so severe that the U.S. Supreme Court actually ordered one state to reduce its prison population, the lock-up rate for juveniles has sharply declined. That means that while many state prisons for adults have scrambled to make room for an influx of prisoners, filling their facilities past capacity, many juvenile facilities actually have empty beds, according to the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

With that drop in juvenile incarceration has come progress when it comes to kids in adult prisons: Since 2000, the study found, the number of children in these facilities has dropped by 70 percent. Still, Daugherty said there’s no excuse for there still to be more than 1,000 kids in adult prisons in 2015. The problem exists in an overwhelming majority of states.

“People staffed at these correctional facilities have no training in adolescent development and adolescent behavior,” she said. “Kids are 34 times more likely to recidivate if they come from [adult] state prisons.”

Given that increased likelihood that a young offender will commit another crime after release, placing kids in adult prisons can have a negative impact on public safety. Recognizing both that kids in adult prisons have fewer rehabilitative resources and that they are more likely to be sexually victimized, the Department of Justice introduced new recommendations in 2012 to the Prison Rape Elimination Act that specifically address the placement of juvenile offenders.

(Graphic: Courtesy Campaign for Youth Justice)

“The standards we establish today reflect the fact that sexual assault crimes committed within our correctional facilities can have devastating consequences—for individual victims and for communities far beyond our jails and prisons,” said then Attorney General Eric Holder in a 2012 statement.

PREA, which was passed unanimously by Congress in 2003 and signed into law by President George W. Bush, acknowledged that juveniles are five times more likely to be assaulted in adult facilities than in juvenile facilities. While the 2012 Youthful Inmate Standard requires that children not be housed with adults, it doesn’t prohibit placing them in adult prisons—hence, the problem persists. Because these facilities aren’t equipped for kids, they are more likely to be isolated from the rest of the adult population in solitary confinement, which can have long-term negative consequences.

States have steadily adjusted to PREA’s requirements since its introduction, but as the data tracked by the report shows, they have a long way to go. “There’s still a lot of wiggle room for states to come into compliance,” said Daugherty. “In this new era of PREA, they could move faster, especially given this small number of kids.”