Illinois near the top in reports of sexual abuse of youth prisoners

A new federal report found that 15 percent of Illinois juvenile inmates reported being sexually victimized while inside prison.

June 7, 2013

By: Patrick Smith

(Photo courtesy of Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice)

A new federal report says Illinois is one of the worst states in the country when it comes to youth reports of sexual abuse in prison.

Researchers with the Bureau of Justice Statistics say that more than 15 percent of kids in Illinois youth prisons reported they had been sexually victimized while inside.

Nationwide, that figure was about 10 percent.

At a recently closed youth prison in southwest suburban Joliet, about one in five youth reported being victimized by staff.

John Maki of the prison watchdog John Howard Association says these numbers are “shameful,” and they show that the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice has to scrutinize its entire system.

Maki says after the Joliet youth prison closed earlier this year, staff members were transferred to three other youth prisons throughout Illinois.

“On some level there was a culture that permitted this to happen, and again I mean Joliet is closed, the staff are all moved to other facilities. I think the thing we need to focus on now is to make sure that culture died at Joliet. This cannot happen again.” Maki says. “People should be held accountable.”

In an emailed statement, a spokeswoman with the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice says they are currently reviewing the report and that the department takes all allegations of sexual abuse seriously.

The 65-page report, released yesterday, is based on surveys with youth prisoners conducted between February and September of 2012 in 273 state-owned or -operated juvenile facilities and 53 locally or privately operated facilities that held adjudicated youth under state contract. The survey limited reporting by youth to incidents occurring in the last 12 months.

According to that survey, Illinois is one of four states that could be considered to have a high rate of sexual victimization in its youth prisons.

According to the report, about 2.5 percent of juveniles nationawide reported a sexual incident involving another youth last year, and 7.7 percent reported an incident involving staff members.

While nationally most victims of staff sexual misconduct reported there was no use of physical force or threats, at the Joliet youth prison the majority of victims reported being victimized by staff through the use of force.

All but one of the facilities in Illinois - the youth prison in St. Charles - had rates of reported sexual victimization that were higher than the national average.

The survey, mandated by the Prison Rape Elimination Act, defines sexual victimization as any unwanted sexual activity between youth and all sexual activity between youth and adult staff.

In an emailed statement, Anders Lindall, a spokesman for the union that represents corrections staff, wrote that the work of the 1,000 men and women in the youth prisons should not be overshadowed by allegations against a few.

But the John Howard Association’s Maki says the tendency to “single out bad actors,” is the wrong response to this report.

“With these levels of sexual assault it is not one bad apple, it is a bad barrel. Something has gone wrong here in the Department of Juvenile Justice where something like this could happen,” Maki said.

He says that is a sign that the department needs to allow more access to its prisons.

Right now, Maki says, his group is not allowed to conduct confidential interviews of inmates or to come for unscheduled visits.

He says without that kind of access for John Howard, or another oversight group, there is no way to be sure this kind of abuse won’t happen again.

He also says it is an indication that the department needs to fix an  “inadequate” grievance process.

If a youth prisoner has a problem with a guard, he or she has to file a written complaint that is then reviewed by prison staff members.

“Essentially you have a defendant who is also the judge,” Maki says.

That, according to Maki, means it is possible that a person in a youth prison could be reporting sexual abuse to his or her abuser or   someone who was complicit in the abuse.

Patrick Smith is a WBEZ reporter.