An estimated 7% of all youth in prison in the USA are being raped inside (https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/svryjf18.pdf). This presents a huge trauma for an already vulnerable population. Even the rigorous PREA Act from 2003 was not able to stem this tide. Most rapes are perpetrated by other inmates but also by staff. The consequences from ordinary rape outside (circa 12% in the general population) are already devastating, but rape inside is wrought with extra problems and extra trauma.
Eva Bicanic (expert on sexual abuse in the Netherlands) argues that rape is the most likely cause of a Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). One of the mechanisms of acquiring PTSD after rape is being unable to activate your natural fight-flight reactions and freeze. This helplessness activates PTSD according to Boston based professor Bessel van der Kolk and expert on PTSD (read his excellent book: ‘The body keeps the score’).
Being raped inside adds extra insecurity and stress to children because they cannot leave or avoid the premises and are even confronted with a perpetrator on a daily basis, because they cannot or dare not disclose what has happened (self-silencing). Often, they are being threatened by the perpetrator or by his mates and face disbelief and fear of disclosure from officers. This makes their helplessness and insecurity even greater. Vivid nightmares produce depression but also aggression, recent research has shown, and then they are often put in separation units with disciplinary measures. There they are often forcibly undressed and searched by other-sex officers adding to more trauma, PTSD, destabilization and fear inside. A girl inside: ‘I lost my chastity here’.
When in court, these children are often grilled by vicious lawyers, suggesting they have made accusations up in order to get released earlier. No wonder they silence themselves. This leads to a low self-esteem and physical problems later in their life.
Afterwards we are faced with major depression and suicides and we blame the victims by telling ourselves they have psychiatric diagnoses like psychosis or borderline.
But there is another ‘whammy’ concerned with trauma from sexual abuse inside. The trauma-reaction is a serious set-back for executive functioning exacerbated by the helplessness experienced. This hampers not only self-control but also education which in our system relies on self-discipline and self-worth. Many victims drop out of education and never return, unable to stand anticipated further failure they have experienced so many times in their lives.
If we cannot prevent rape inside, the prison system should therefore at least adopt trauma-therapy and trauma- informed education, as education is one of the strongest predictors for recidivism-prevention.
Undeniable, however we think of children committing crimes, we should not do further harm and grant them at least a possible a future we aspire for our own children.
Peer van der Helm is a professor of residential youthcare at Leiden University of applied sciences and research director of Fier (national treatment centre for sexually abused girls) the Netherlands. Anna made this drawing while in a separation unit.