Using Graphic Novels as Educational Tools for Youth Offenders
June 17, 2013 | Caleb Bess, Project Coordinator, The Project on Addressing Prison Rape at the Washington College of Law at American University
The Project on Addressing Prison Rape created the End Silence: Youth Speaking Up about Sexual Abuse in Custody series of graphic novels to educate youth in custodial settings about identifying, addressing, and responding to sexual abuse in custody. The Project created these novels to meet a need—developmentally appropriate yet realistic materials to inform youth about the realities and risks of sexual victimization in custodial settings.
The Project on Addressing Prison Rape created the End Silence: Youth Speaking Up about Sexual Abuse in Custody series of graphic novels to educate youth in custodial settings about identifying, addressing, and responding to sexual abuse in custody. The Project created these novels to meet a need—developmentally appropriate yet realistic materials to inform youth about the realities and risks of sexual victimization in custodial settings. The Project chose graphic novels as a medium to deliver this message because of their longstanding successful use in community education projects. Furthermore, the medium is developmentally appropriate for most youth in custody. The Project intends that agencies use the graphic novels as one of a set of tools to prevent prison rape.
Currently, state and local juvenile detention centers, community residential facilities, and probation offices across the country use the graphic novels. They are popular among administrators, staff, and youth because they are simple, clear, and visually appealing to readers. The End Silence series contains five graphic novels: Billy Speaks Out, Sheila’s Dilemma, Carlo’s Question, Mary’s Friend, and Charlie’s Report. Based on news stories and youth survivor accounts of sexual abuse in custodial settings, each graphic novel depicts youth dealing with sexual abuse scenarios that both have occurred and could occur.
The prevalence of youth sexual victimization in custody is well documented. According to a 2010 report from the US Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, “[a]n estimated 12% of youth in state juvenile facilities and large non-state facilities (representing 3,220 youth nationwide) reported experiencing one or more incidents of sexual victimization by another youth or facility staff in the past 12 months since admission, if less than 12 months”. Due to underreporting of sexual abuse, both generally and particularly in custodial settings, the actual numbers of sexual victimization could be much higher. Training materials for youth in custody on how to recognize and handle sexual abuse and harassment are scarce. Many youth enter the juvenile justice system with long histories of physical and sexual victimization and neglect. Because of their histories, youth may normalize abuse, react in ways adults would not expect, and often cannot and do not understand that saying no to sex is an option, especially when an adult is the perpetrator. The Project’s graphic novels walk youth through reporting abuse; addressing disbelief by staff; and the aftermath of reporting, including investigation, safety concerns, and medical and mental health care.
Although graphic novels are often associated with cartoons and fantastical tales of superheroes, this illustrative medium’s emphasis on visual storytelling is perfect for reaching youth and staff, many of whom have low literacy levels. Rather than trivializing sexual abuse in custodial settings, the graphic novels’ combination of succinct language and engaging pictures appeal to visual vocabularies, thereby conveying complexities and emotional gravity to readers from various reading thresholds; this visual engagement is very important for youth. According to data from the One World Literacy Foundation, 85% of juveniles who encounter the juvenile justice system are functionally illiterate, while 60% of all prison inmates are functionally illiterate. This data further emphasizes the need for alternative visual and verbal based forms of education for youth in custodial settings.
Due to the novels’ popularity among custodial administrators and youth, the Project is creating a similar series for adult inmates (coming in December 2013).
If you are interested in reading the End Silence: Youth Speaking Up about Sexual Abuse in Custody series of graphic novels, they are online at http://www.wcl.american.edu/endsilence/juvenile_training.cfm.
If you are interested in using the graphic novels in your facility, are already using the novels and have feedback, or would participate in a survey about their utility, please contact The Project on Addressing Prison Rape at email@example.com.
The Project on Addressing Prison Rape: www.wcl.american.edu/endsilence
Guest blogger Caleb Bess is a program coordinator for The Project on Addressing Prison Rape at the Washington College of Law at American University. The Project educates correctional administrators and inmates on properly identifying, reporting, and addressing sexual abuse in custodial settings.
 Beck, A., Harrison, P., & Guerino, P. (2010). Sexual victimization in juvenile facilities reported by youth, 2008–2009. Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics. Retrieved May 6, 2013 from http://www.bjs.gov/index.cfm?iid=2113&ty=pbdetail
 Karp, J. (2011). The case for graphic novels in education: Use students’ visual vocabulary as a learning tool. American Libraries. Retrieved May 6, 2013 from http://americanlibrariesmagazine.org/features/08012011/case-graphic-novels-education
 Illiteracy Statistics. Retrieved May 6, 2013 from http://www.oneworldliteracyfoundation.org/index.php/why-support-owl/iliteracy-statisctics.html