About 3 out of every 25 youths in state and privately run juvenile correctional facilities have experienced at least one incident of sexual victimization, according to a federal study released Thursday.
The study, which is the first of its kind, brings attention to the need for more training and accountability for staff members at such facilities, said Linda McFarlane, deputy executive director of Just Detention International, a nonprofit human rights organization that works on preventing abuse in detention centers.
"It's more of a systemic problem," she said.
The study defines victimization as any forced sexual activity with another youth or any sexual activity with facility a staffer. The facilities included juvenile halls and detention centers.
The study, by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, also identified 13 facilities with a high rate of sexual victimization. Out of the centers, six had victimization rates of 30% or more, four had rates between 25% and 30%, and three had rates between 20% and 25%. Two Virginia facilities made the list, as did two Texas facilities.
Bruce Twyman, a spokesman for the Virginia Department of Corrections, called the results shocking. Over the last 18 months, the department has implemented extra staff training and installed more monitoring video cameras to deal with the issue, he said.
"It's a problem in Virginia," Twyman said. "It's a problem nationally."
The study reported that 10% of abuse incidents involved staff members, with almost all of the abuse involving females.
"When we put kids in custody and staff has absolute power and control over what happens to those kids, it is crucial that very careful mechanisms to check that power are put into place," McFarlane said.
Youths who had experienced any prior sexual assault were twice as likely to report victimization, according to the survey. About 60% of the misconduct occurred between 6 p.m. and midnight.
The study, mandated by the 2003 Prison Rape Elimination Act, was based on audio computer-assisted interviews conducted from June 2008 to April 2009. Out of the 166 state-run facilities and 29 locally or privately operated centers, 9,198 youths who had served sentences responded.
Overall, 91% of youths in the facilities were male, according to the study. More than 26,550 adjudicated youths are held in centers nationwide.
One person who says he experienced sexual abuse while in custody is Troy Erik Isaac, 36, of North Hollywood. Until January 2008, Isaac says, he was in and out of detention centers his entire life. He was 12 when he was assaulted the first time -- while being held at a California detention hall for vandalism.
Isaac says he was assaulted throughout the next 22 years in various detention centers and halls and in prison.
"Psychologically, it damaged me," he said. "I had to learn on my own how to protect myself."
As a result, Isaac often lied to staff members about being suicidal so he could be isolated.
"There's no such thing as consenting juveniles and there's no such thing as consenting adults in prison," said Isaac, who started a nonprofit community service organization, Hands On Advocacy Group.
Eleven facilities, including California's Heman G. Stark Youth Correctional Facility in Chino, were identified with low rates of sexual victimization.
But, McFarlane said, whether the rate is low or high, it's still happening.
"When I read the numbers, I think of the faces, the lives behind each of these percentage points which have been affected for life," she said.