On July 30, approximately 50 people gathered outside the Bilandic Building, 160 N. LaSalle St., to participate in a silent protest against the sexual abuse of incarcerated youth. The event, which began at 8:30 a.m., was scheduled before the Illinois House Restorative Justice Committee held a hearing in response to response to a recent Department of Justice (DoJ) report and findings.
The protest drew participants from local social service and activist organizations and included several LGBTQ people. Protesters stood silently for over an hour with signs, and some also had duct tape over their mouths, to symoblize the silencing of incarcerated youth.
Besides individuals, groups included Rape Victims Advocates (RVA), the queer prison abolition and prisoner correspondence group Black and Pink, and Project NIA, which works to end youth incarceration and which called for the silent protest. Also present were several youth working in a summer Arts Leadership Program with Youth Service Project.
The DoJ report, titled "Sexual Victimization in Juvenile Facilities Reported by Youth" drew upon testimonies from youth in custody in 2012 and was released June 6 of this year. Among its findings, it reported that "an estimated 9.5 percent of adjudicated youth in juvenile facilities...reported experiencing one or more experiences of sexual victimization by another youth or staff."
Youth who identified as gay, lesbian or other reported a substantially higher rate of youth-on-youth sexual victimization (10.3 percent) than heterosexual youth (1.5 percent), according to the report.
Project NIA points out that "Illinois youth prisoners are sexually assaulted and abused at a rate 35-percent higher than the national average, which was under 10 percent."
In the report, Illinois was found to be among the four states with the highest rates, along with Georgia, Ohio, and S. Carolina. Each of these had an overall sexual victimization rate of over 15 percent, "which was primarily due to high rates of staff sexual misconduct."
Mariame Kaba, founding director of Project NIA, was there to protest as well as to testify at the hearing. She spoke with Windy City Times and pointed out that the fact of high rates of sexual misconduct by staff disputed the more prevalent idea that sexual violence among the incarcerated mostly happens between members of that population.
She said, "The report indicates that sexual violence is rampant everywhere in the system, in bathrooms, in cells, in kitchensthis indicates the problem is systemic and not just about a "few bad apples. It also tells us the that we need to close prisonsthis cannot be reformed away."
In terms of sexuality, Kaba said, "Young people are sexually targeted across the board, but we do hear of LGBT and gender-non-conforming youth facing repercussions for their identity."
RVA's Megan Bloomquist, who is queer-identified, was there with five of her colleagues and a large RVA banner and signs. She said they were there because "We support all survivors, and are here to protest the sexual violence. We work with young men and women in prison as well as the staff, and to make the system more transparent for prisoners." Asked what specific goals RVA had in mind, Bloomquist said it was important to make more resources available so that youth knew where to turn.
Jona Schuman of Black and Pink said they could not speak formally for the organization, which is still a relatively new chapter in Chicago, but described it as one that worked on prison abolition from a queer and trans perspective.
Asked to elaborate on that, they said, "The prison industrial complex controls, polices, and probes bodies and this is especially true for queer and trans people in it." Shuman said it was important to "amplify voices from the inside and to create support for them" and added that they were appalled at the amount of violence faced by youth from guards: "It's fucked up. The system is fucked."
Among the youth supporters present, several had either been incarcerated or had friends still inside. Emory, 15, was there "to support all the kids being sexually molested; they need education, not incarceration." Having been incarcerated in the fifth grade, Emory spoke of the experience of watching fellow youth become sick from the conditions and of hearing about guards sexually molesting them.
Tatyana, also 15, was there to speak out "against rape culture, present every day"and which encouraged sexual violence. Edward Ward, 20, spoke of the need to end a system which was destroying Black and Brown youth in particular (rates of incarceration tend to be higher for people of color).
In a follow-up interview, Kaba said that her testimony addressed what she said was a prevalent notion that the young people recorded in the report were either exaggerating or lying or that the methodology was wrong: "Why shouldn't we be we assume that 15 percent for Illinois is too low a number? Three years ago, we saw 10 percent, and we've now gone to 15 percent; maybe in three years, it'll be 20 percent."
She added, "We need to close the youth prisons if we want to end rape behind bars. In the absence of that, at the very least, young people deserve their own advocates that they could turn to." Kaba said, "Young people who are incarcerated [should] be afforded the right to have a lawyer who could advocate for them in case of sexual violence; that person needs to be independent from the Department of Juvenile Justice and even independent from the State."