By ALAN JOHNSON
The Columbus Dispatch
Assessors are being assigned to all four Ohio juvenile corrections facilities in the wake of a federal report showing the state’s facilities are among the worst in the nation for rape and other sexual assaults against incarcerated youths.
“We want to make sure we’re doing everything we can to protect our youth,” said Kim Parsell of the Ohio Department of Youth Services. “We are gathering information, reaching out to youth. We want them to be free to let us know what’s going on.”
The U.S. Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics report ranked Ohio among four states with the highest sexual-assault rates against juveniles. Circleville Juvenile Correctional Facility was second-worst in the nation, with a sexual-assault rate of 30.3 percent, the report found. The Scioto Juvenile Correctional Facility (23.2 percent) and Cuyahoga Hills Juvenile Correctional Facility (19.8 percent) were among 13 facilities with the highest rates.
Joanna Saul, executive director of the Ohio Correctional Institution Inspection Committee, said she found the report “absolutely shocking,” especially considering her agency gave the Circleville facility a passing grade last month after an on-site inspection in March.
“The report is extremely disturbing and concerning,” Saul said. “Anytime you see an institution where 30 percent of the inhabitants are reporting sexual victimization, it’s shocking.”
Gov. John Kasich responded within minutes of seeing a Dispatch story on the report last Thursday by creating a four-agency emergency task force, headed by Gary Mohr, director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, the adult prison system. Other agencies involved are the departments of Youth Services, Job and Family Services and Public Safety.
Nationally, 9.5 percent of young people held in state and private facilities reported being sexually victimized one or more times last year, according to the survey done as a requirement of the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act. Assaults are defined as “unwanted sexual activity” involving other youths or prison staff members.
But Will Harrell, a monitor appointed by the U.S. District Court in Columbus, thinks the study overestimated the number of sexual-assault cases.
“Something of that proportion would have come to our attention, and it just did not,” he said.
Parsell released Youth Services records that showed that in 2012, just two of 29 sexual-assault reports systemwide were found to be substantiated, both of them youth-on-youth. None of the 18 staff-on-youth assaults were found to be substantiated.
The federal report, in comparison, is a survey in which incarcerated youth are anonymously asked questions about forced sexual activity by other youth and staffers. It involved 8,707 youth in 273 state-owned or -operated facilities and 53 facilities that were locally or privately operated.
“The important point here is this is not an inevitable part of incarceration,” said Jesse Lerner-Kinglake, a spokesman for the Los Angeles-based prisoner-rights group Just Detention International. The report could have an impact on federal monitoring of Ohio youth prisons underway for the past five years.
Earlier this year, U.S. District Court Judge Algenon L. Marbley ended most court-ordered monitoring of Ohio’s youth prisons that resulted from a 2008 settlement of a lawsuit about a culture of violence in the juvenile system.
In August, the federal government is scheduled to begin enforcing new sexual-assault-prevention measures at detention facilities across the country. The requirements include providing inmates with access to crisis hot lines, training medical examiners to identify abuse and conducting independent audits every three years.