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A Failure to Protect the Most Vulnerable Population Behind Bars

Ian S. Thompson,
Senior Legislative Advocate,
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January 29, 2010

Regular readers of The New York Times know that columnist Nicolas Kristof is a forceful advocate on behalf of human rights around the world. In his column on Thursday, January 28th — “Kids in Crisis (Behind Bars)” — he addresses serious human rights abuses that don’t require a trip half-way around the world to discover.

Instead, he addresses one of the most gut-wrenching aspects of our broken, dysfunctional criminal justice system — the physical and sexual abuse of children in juvenile and adult correctional facilities across the country. To illustrate just how serious this problem is, he provides a heartbreaking example which I think is almost beyond the scope of what most people can imagine

Consider Rodney Hulin, Jr., who was a 16-year-old when he was convicted of arson. A first-time offender and a slight figure at 5 feet 2 inches tall and some 125 pounds, he was sent to a men’s prison. There, he was the smallest person around. Within a week, he was raped, according to an account by Human Rights Watch, an advocacy group. The prison doctor ordered an H.I.V. test, since up to one-third of the inmates were H.I.V.-positive.

Rodney asked to be placed in protective custody, but he was denied. His father, Rodney Hulin, Sr., picks up the story: “For the next several months, my son was repeatedly beaten by the older inmates, forced to perform oral sex, robbed, and beaten again…He could no longer stand to live in continual terror.”

Rodney Jr. hanged himself.

It would provide some measure of comfort to assume that such examples, while horrific, are rare. A recent report from the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, however, provides conclusive evidence that the sexual abuse and rape of children in juvenile correctional facilities is a widespread problem. The report found that 12 percent of youth in custody reported being sexually abused one or more times within the previous year, with the majority of these assaults being committed by facility staff members. One of the report’s most shocking findings, however, was that numerous facilities had victimization rates over 20 percent, with a few with rates of 30 percent or higher!

Last year, the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission issued a report and recommendations for ways government and correctional facilities can crack down on the staggering rates of sexual abuse and rape in our nation’s jails, prisons and detention facilities. Those recommendations are currently being reviewed by the Obama administration. They should be adopted without delay; however, there is another critical area for reform that Congress must address this year.

The Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), which was signed into law in 1996, was originally intended to prevent the federal courts from being overwhelmed with “frivolous” prisoner lawsuits. However, over a decade of experience with the law has shown that it has too often been used to deny justice to victims of prison rape and assault, as well as other serious rights violations.

In essence, the PLRA has served to prevent the courts from fulfilling their proper and critically important role of protecting the most vulnerable individuals behind bars — children. Youth are, as clearly established by the recent Justice Department report, an extremely vulnerable population behind bars, and forcing them to jump through very complex and burdensome administrative hoops in order to access the protections of the courts makes them even more susceptible to abuse.

Unfortunately, the PLRA also prevents instances of abuse from ever being uncovered in the first place because in many instances it virtually immunizes prison officials from accountability to the Constitution and federal laws. Thankfully, Rep. Robert Scott (D-Va.), Chair of the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Crime, introduced legislation in December — the Prison Abuse Remedies Act (PARA) — which would help to fix the worst problems caused by the PLRA, such as the eliminating the hurdles to children accessing the protections of the courts by exempting those under the age of 18. A broad coalition of lawyers, judges, former prisoners, advocacy groups and the faith community are pushing for passage of this common-sense legislation.

Congress needs to move forward with a supportive vote on PARA this year. As Nicholas Kristof’s column makes strikingly clear, too much is at stake to wait.