Do the New Data on Juvenile Inmate Rape Tell the Whole Story?

May 21, 2013

The New York Times' May 16 headline proclaimed, “Juvenile Inmates Found to Be at No Greater Risk for Prison Rape.”

But many advocates and experts disagree with that read, and are calling for further research.

Making sense of the latest U.S. data on the sexual abuse of youth in adult correctional facilities.

The Times article examines new national data from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), which show no statistically significant difference in the rates of sexual abuse among youth and adults in adult correctional facilities.

The study finds rates of sexual victimization of 4.5 percent among youth ages 16 and 17 in adult prisons and 4.7 percent among youth in adult jails, compared with 4.0 percent of adults in prisons, and 3.2 percent of adults in jails.  Notably, a majority of juvenile victims reported being victimized more than once.

These numbers are lower than previous BJS data—including a recent study that found that although youth under age 18 make up only 1 percent of jail inmates, they accounted for 21 percent of all substantiated cases of inmate-on-inmate sexual violence in jails in 2005.

“Due to underreporting by youth in challenging adult facility conditions, we need more research to know more about this problem,” says Liz Ryan, President and CEO of the Campaign for Youth Justice (CFYJ).  

The new study did find that rates of youth victimization were significantly higher than adults in some facilities across the country. And nationally, inmates with mental health issues, past victims of sexual abuse or rape, and gay and lesbian inmates were more likely to be victimized.

An article by the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange (, quotes Brenda Smith, Director of The Project on Addressing Prison Rape at American University’s Washington College of Law, as saying, “While I appreciate BJS taking a closer look at victimization of youth in adult facilities, these findings call for a closer look at the data, and conflict with existing research—their own and others—and from the previous accounts given by youth to the people that they trust.”

The BLS report comes as juvenile justice advocates are running a national campaign calling on governors to fully implement the Prison Rape Elimination Act’s (PREA) Youthful Inmate Standard by removing youth under 18 from adult jails and prisons.

“As someone who spent time in prison as a teenager, efforts to ensure the safety of young people, no matter the mistakes they have made, are of primary importance,” said R. Dwayne Betts, CFYJ Spokesman and Presidential Appointee to the Federal Coordinating Council on Juvenile Justice.

Also, this August, the Justice Department’s 2012 PREA detention standards designed to address sexual abuse in federal prisons take full effect. The regulations define “prison” as “any confinement facility,” including jails, police lockups, and juvenile facilities, and define “rape” to include a broad range of unwanted sexual activity.

Get Involved

Individuals and organizations are calling on their governors to cease the practice of placing youth in adult jails and prisons in order to comply with PREA. Sign the petition to add your support >>

For more information:

Caitlin Johnson is SparkAction's co-founder and managing editor, and a writer in New York City. Read Caitlin's full bio here.



Caitlin Johnson