Our children are in danger. Today, your 16-year-old arrested for shoplifting could be detained in an adult jail with adult offenders because our system is woefully underprepared to separate these radically different levels of offenders.
North Carolina has yet to achieve full compliance with new federal regulations designed to protect children from sexual assault in adult jails and prisons, and every jail or prison that is out of compliance presents a risk to youth.
This is truly a life or death situation that needs immediate attention. Fortunately, a new bill, HB 585, is aimed at bringing the state’s jails and prisons into compliance with the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), a bill signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2003 to address violence behind bars. It is a necessary and pressing step in an overall smarter approach to dealing with incarcerated youth in North Carolina.
Most likely to be victims
Evidence shows that youth are not safe in adult jails and prisons and are at the greatest risk of sexual victimization. According to Bureau of Justice Statistics, youth under the age of 18 represented 21 percent of all substantiated victims of inmate-on-inmate sexual violence in jails in 2005, and 13 percent in 2006 – disproportionately high since only one percent of jail inmates are juveniles.
The National Prison Rape Elimination Commission found that “more than any other group of incarcerated persons, youth incarcerated with adults are probably at the highest risk for sexual abuse.” Research also shows that youth are 36 times more likely to commit suicide in an adult jail than in a juvenile detention facility.
Complying with the PREA and keeping children who are incarcerated safe should be a priority. Unfortunately, it is not a silver bullet. North Carolina must still wrestle with broader issues surrounding our treatment of youth. For example, placing youth in isolation in jails and prisons in order to “protect” them creates a de facto solitary confinement situation, which puts young people at greater risk of suicide.
Given the choice, we don’t believe any state or law enforcement official would choose to put kids in a position where they are at a high risk of being raped, but by turning a blind eye, they are doing just that. Removing youth from adult jails and prisons and placing them in juvenile facilities instead is one way to prevent the sexual assault of youth in adult facilities and at the same time ensure they are not in solitary confinement.
As lawmakers grapple with ways to keep kids safe, one thing is for sure: North Carolina is unnecessarily putting youth at risk by not fully abiding by the Prison Rape Elimination Act. Please call your local sheriff to find out what would happen if your kids made mistakes that led to their placement in an adult facility.
Wendy L. Greene is director of the Incarcerated Youth Advocacy Project, North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services, Inc. Frank H. Crawford is with The Children’s Alliance in Charlotte.
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