Texas’s juvenile prison system is (still) in crisis (again): Where are the girls and young women?

E.Y., age 11

The Texas Tribune reports this month, and once again, that Texas’s juvenile detention system is still in crisis, again. As Tribune criminal justice reporter Jolie McCullough noted in an interview yesterday, “The Texas Juvenile Justice Department has really always been – it’s always been in crisis. It’s been more than a decade of crisis after crisis. There’s sexual abuse scandals, mistreatment allegations. They’re actually under federal investigation right now from the U.S. Department of Justice.” The Texas Juvenile Justice Department has always been in crisis. While the system has reduced from thousands to hundreds, that step is of little benefit to those still caught inside. Children are spending 23 hours a day, days on end, alone in their concrete cells, equipped with a mounted shelf and a thin mattress: “The lucky ones have a small window to the outside.” Children are `self-harming’ in record numbers. The “system is nearing total collapse.” Nobody in that system is lucky. And where are the girls and young women? They are in the Ron Jackson State Juvenile Correctional Complex in Brownwood … for now.

In 2008, the ACLU filed a class action lawsuit against Texas challenging inhumane conditions at the Brownwood State School, which was later renamed Ron Jackson. The conditions included invasive, frequent strip searches; frequent, extended use of solitary confinement; frequent application of “brutal physical force.” Why were girls and young women in Brownwood, in the first place? Minor offenses, minor misbehavior, but really for being girls and young women who had survived violence and were living with trauma, depression, and mental health issues. Any of those would send a girl or young woman into solitary, often and for long periods of time. Who in that system, in the early 2000’s, was lucky? That class action lawsuit covered “all girls and young women who are now or in the future will be confined in the Brownwood State School”. From 2008, is 2022 “in the future”, because the conditions at Brownwood, now known as Ron Jackson, are still brutal.

In 2012, the Texas Coalition Criminal Justice Coalition reported on girls’ experiences in the Texas juvenile justice system. They found: “Girls in the Texas juvenile justice system do not receive sufficient help to deal with past trauma in their lives … Negative interactions with staff are the least helpful part of the juvenile justice system; they are also the number one thing girls want changed in the juvenile justice system … Girls in the Ron Jackson state secure facility are extremely isolated from their families.” Anna Yáñez-Correa, Executive Director of the Coalition, noted, “We are failing many of these traumatized children. Half of the girls we surveyed at the Ron Jackson State Juvenile Correctional Complex told us that their time in county juvenile facilities either did not help or actually did more harm than good for dealing with their past trauma. Tragically, eight percent told us that their time at Ron Jackson is doing more harm than good, suggesting that our juvenile justice system may be re-traumatizing many of these domestic violence survivors.” As one girl explained, “Counselors, staff, the legal system – they can’t understand where we’re coming from and what we need. They’re always trying to judge us for our trauma.” Ten years later, the trauma and the judging continue and deepen.

In 2019, the U.S. Justice Department’s Sexual Victimization Reported by Youth in Juvenile Facilities, 2018 found that, nationally, 7% of youth in juvenile facilities reported having experienced sexual victimization, which was down from 9.5% in the previous report, in 2012. Texas was an outlier, reporting 10.3%. Ron Jackson’s lucky residents reported 14%, as they had in 2012. In August 2019, a guard at Ron Jackson was fired and jailed for sexually abusing a “resident”. For those incarcerated girls and young women, when does “the future” begin?

Last year, the U.S. Department of Justice launched an investigation into the abuse of children and teens in Texas juvenile detention centers. At the press conference announcing the investigation, Chad Meacham, acting U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Texas, said, “We are particularly troubled by the news coming out of the facility in our district, especially reports of misconduct by staff.” That was an explicit reference to the particularly troubling Ron Jackson State Juvenile Correctional Complex.

Last year, the Texas Juvenile Justice Department reviewed its own “progress”. Under the heading “Achieving Balance Between Supervision and Population”, the report addressed the particularities of girls at Ron Jackson: “Girls have very high levels of trauma, with 86 percent having 4 or more Adverse Childhood Experiences, and when we screen them for potential sexual exploitation, 36 percent are of clear concern and 55 percent are of possible concern. The small number of girls in state care quite often have an intense level of trauma that causes them to respond automatically and aggressively to stressors. Girls need an overall ratio of 1 direct-care staff member to 6 girls; for the most violent youth and those with significant mental health needs, that ratio is 1 to 4. Of girls in secure facilities 63 percent have been placed on suicide alert at least once— about twice the percentage of TJJD secure youth overall. When this occurs, they often need a 1 to 1 ratio … 84 percent of girls have four or more Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) as compared to 12.6 percent of the public, 91 percent of girls are clear or possible concern for child sex trafficking … This is the highest concentration of acute needs and risk in the history of the agency.” How does the State respond to the highest concentration of acute needs and history? Diverting federal coronavirus relief funds to Texas’ “border security mission.”

In June 2022, Shandra Carter, Texas Department of Juvenile Justice Interim Director, wrote to her staff to outline her response to the department’s situation. The letter begins, “I am incredibly disappointed to have to inform y’all that we will temporarily be halting intake of youth committed to TJJD.” She then outlines five steps, including moving the female behavioral stabilization unit from Ron Jackson unit to the McLennan County State Juvenile Correctional Facility and “reducing’ the female population by 16 at the Ron Jackson State Juvenile Correctional Complex by moving them to the McLennan County State Juvenile Correctional Facility, currently holding 242 males. So, the reduction involves no reduction but rather moving 16 girls and young women to an all-male facility that is also under federal investigation.

The Texas Juvenile Justice Department has always been in crisis. From the first report to the latest, the “crisis” is always attributed to “staffing shortages”. While staffing shortages exist, the crisis in the Texas Juvenile Justice Department is prison. Texas responds to violence against girls and young women as a matter of criminal justice in which girls and young women are condemned for their trauma as well as their survival. Moving girls and young women from one prison to another does not reduce their population, it reduces their dignity and stature and intensifies their trauma. Blaming the situation on staff shortage refuses to acknowledge the truth, one which Mark Patterson, head administrator of the currently empty Hawaii Youth Correctional Facility, explained, “We no longer want to keep sending our kids to prison … Do we really have to put a child in prison because she ran away? What kind of other environment is more conducive for her to heal and be successful in the community?” Stop offering alibis, such as staff shortages, for our own vicious policies; stop sending children to prison; stop treating trauma and mental illness as a crime. Work towards healing in the community and beyond. Begin, again, by stop sending children to prison. Where are the girls and young women; when does their future begin?

 

(By Dan Moshenberg)

(Photo Credit: Richard Ross / PBS)

No girls in juvenile detention: In Hawaii another impossible world is possible

“Forgiveness must announce itself as impossibility itself. It can only be possible by doing the impossible.”   Jacques Derrida, On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness

For decades, women have been the fastest growing population. For decades, girls have been the fastest growing population in juvenile detention. While many have decried the situation, it often seems that the best one can hope for is some reform around the edges, but real change, transformative change, seems impossible. The problem is so big, so complex, and there are so many things to attend to. It’s … impossible. Well, welcome to Hawaii: “Hawaii has no girls in juvenile detention. Here’s how it got there.”

In 2014, we noted, “Girls are entering into the juvenile `justice’ system at an alarmingly increasing rate. One reason is that girls are arrested more often than boys for status offenses and are more severely punished for those offenses. The thing is those `offenses’ are not crimes. That’s what makes them `status’ offenses. If the girls were older, there would be no offense, no crime. But they are girls, and they must be protected from themselves.” Boys will be boys, and girls will be jailed. In January 2022, eight years later, we noted, “Girls `enter the criminal justice system’ in disproportionate numbers and, as a result, die at a young age in disproportionate number. The time for discovery is over. It’s time, it’s way past time, to stop the slaughter of girls and gender expansive youth.” Boys will be boys, girls will be jailed, and then they will die at an early age. At times, the news can seem dispiriting, but wait, there’s more. Hawaii has no girls in juvenile detention. How can that be?

Hawaii has no girls in detention because people worked together for years to make that happen, starting in 2004, when Judge Karen Radius founded a Girls Court which “aimed to address the specific crimes and trauma history of girls.” Other Hawaiian programs with similar aims followed suit. Then, in 2014, Mark Patterson assumed the administration of the Hawaii Youth Correctional Facility, HYCF. Patterson came from having been warden of Hawaii’s only women’s prison, the Women’s Community Correctional Center. Upon announcing that HYCF had no girls inside, Patterson explained, “We no longer want to keep sending our kids to prison. What I’m trying to do is end the punitive model that we have so long used for our kids, and we replace it with a therapeutic model. Do we really have to put a child in prison because she ran away? What kind of other environment is more conducive for her to heal and be successful in the community?”

As Patterson and others explain, this news is the result of a concerted 20-year effort that itself is built on decades of work, vision, struggle. Part of it involved seeing and speaking the truth. Native Hawaiian youths were disproportionately dumped into the criminal justice system. Girls were arrested for having survived, often barely, trauma. And so, Patterson and his allies set to transform HYCF into the Kawailoa Youth and Family Wellness Center, an environment with trauma care at its center and everywhere. This vision, and now reality, is based on “pu’uhonua — a place created within a traditional Hawaiian village for conflict resolution and forgiveness.”

For Patterson and his allies, the struggle is not over, there’s more work to be done, much more work. At the same time, their work and example have already taught that doing the impossible is necessary. Another world is possible, one in which impossible forgiveness subsumes the criminality and cruelty of justice structures that send children, especially girls, who have suffered trauma into cages, brand them for life, and then toss away so much more than a key, toss away their lives. Another impossible world is possible.

(By Dan Moshenberg)

(Image Credit: Ka Wai Ola)

In Australia, don’t `fix’ Banksia Hill Detention Center. Shut it down!

Today’s headlines read: “The juvenile prison where child was ‘treated like an animal’ gets funding boost”; “Banksia Hill juvenile detention centre gets $25 million to address ‘dehumanising’ conditions, cut incarceration rates”. Banksia Hill Detention Center is in Western Australia. It’s the only juvenile detention center in Australia that houses both males and females. The situation is so bad that, in January, Perth Children’s Court president Hylton Quail sentenced a 17-year-old child to Hakea Prison, an adult prison, rather than send to Banksia Hill. Hakea Prison is where 22-year-old Noongar man Ricky Lee Cound was kept in solitary and denied clearly needed medical care. On Friday, March 25, Ricky Lee Cound died. After weeks of self-harm and institutional refusal, Ricky Lee Cound died in a place that is preferable to Banksia Hill Detention Center, and today, Banksia Hill Detention Center received $25 million to improve its conditions. Don’t improve it. Shut it down.

In February, the same Judge Quail was presented with the case of a 15-year-old child. The boy had been held in Banksia Hill for 98 days. For 79 of the 98 days, the boy was held in what the judge called a “fishbowl” cell, where he had no privacy whatsoever. The judge described the exercise yard as a “10 x 20 metre cage”. For 33 of the 79 days, the boy wasn’t allowed outside the cell at all. The judge rightly called this “solitary confinement”. The boy received no education while in custody. The boy threatened self-harm and attacked staff. In fact, he was standing before the judge because he had attacked staff and damaged state property. Judge Quail responded to the situation, “When you treat a damaged child like an animal, they will behave like an animal. When you want to make a monster, this is how you do it.”

Today, Banksia Hill Detention Center received $25 million to address these conditions. Don’t address, don’t improve. Shut it down and build real alternatives.

The problems at Banksia Hill Detention Center go way back, continue to the present, and are hard baked into its design and purpose. According to the Office of the Inspector of Custodial Services’ 2020 Inspection of Banksia Hill Detention Center, “Aboriginal young people continue to be overrepresented at Banksia Hill, making up 74 percent of the population.” Even by Australian standards, where Indigenous young people typically make up 49% of those “under youth justice supervision”, 74% is high … and catastrophic.

And for girls, it’s especially bad. 80% of the girls are Aboriginal, a mix of sentenced and remand. While services for the girls had improved since the last inspection, the report notes that the improvement came from individual staff members, and not from any strategic or management plan. That means when the staff moves on, and they do move quite a bit, there’s no guarantee the improved services will remain. Further, a number of staff make it known, to the girls, that they don’t want to work in the female section. While girls form a minority of Banksia Hill residents, their numbers have been increasing, during a period where the general population has been decreasing. From 2017 to 2020, the numbers of girls generally doubled. Likewise, where they were 6% of the Banksia Hill population in 2017, by 2020, they comprised 13%. And yet, with all that increase, everything involving girls at Banksia Hill Detention Center was ad hoc.

Banksia Hill Detention Center has been open since 1997. It has gone through repeated cycles of “major redevelopment”, to no avail. That’s because the improvements, despite individual staff members’ best intentions or lack thereof of, were never meant to improve the lives of Aboriginal children. Don’t `improve’ the institution, yet again, with a fat purse. The children housed in Banksia Hill Detention have problems, but they themselves are not the problem. Shut it down. Build real justice by investing in real care.

(By Dan Moshenberg)

(Photo Credit: National Indigenous Times)

Boys will be boys, girls will be jailed, and then they will die at an early age

Detention harms children and youth, all children and youth. In fact, it leads to greater likelihood of early death, according to a recent study: “In this cohort study of 3645 previously incarcerated youths, the all-cause mortality rate was 5.9 times higher in previously incarcerated youths than the rate observed in general population, Medicaid-enrolled youths.” Given that on any given day, the United States holds more than 50,000 children and youth in juvenile detention center, that ratio should give pause. Of course, any ratio of childhood and youth mortality should give pause. Sadly, tragically, such is not the case. Further, “Of particular significance was the mortality rate in previously incarcerated females … The all-cause mortality rate among females was nearly 9 times that of the Medicaid comparison group …. Formerly incarcerated females were at a considerable higher risk of early mortality compared with female Medicaid-enrolled youths. Research shows complex histories of trauma contribute to females in the juvenile legal system to a much greater extent than males. Incarceration can exacerbate the adverse effects of these experiences.” Though shocking, none of this is new. Sixteen years ago, a study reported, “The mortality rate among female youth was nearly 8 times the general-population rate.” Sixteen years later, here we are, from eight times the general population to nine times.

Just prior to the pandemic, reports were that juvenile detention was dropping, but not as much for girls. Last year, the U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Prevention reported, “Male and female juvenile arrest rates have declined in the last 10 years; however, the relative declines have been greater for males than for females across many offenses. As a result, the female share of juvenile arrests has grown since 1980.” According to another recent report, during the pandemic, in urban areas, the number of boys in juvenile detention has dropped 41%; the number of girls dropped 37%. In rural areas, the number of boys dropped 30%, girls dropped 23%. What’s going on?

Two years ago, a study in Virginia found “that girls, especially girls with school conduct problems and no documentation of structured activities were treated more punitively at both intake and adjudication.”

Girls are criminalized for `misbehaving’, boys aren’t. Running away, skipping school, disobeying a parent sends girls, and not boys, to juvenile detention It’s been like that forever, and it continues, especially for girls and gender expansive youth of color. Year after year, for the last decade, reports have noted, and decried, the alarming rate at which girls are entering into the juvenile `justice’ system. The only problem is that, apart from the usual suspects, such as the Vera Institute, no alarm has been raised. Three years ago, the Vera Institute launched the Initiative to End Girls’ Incarceration. They do great work, both nationally and in respective states and municipalities, and yet, as the same time, girls `enter the criminal justice system’ in disproportionate numbers and, as a result, die at a young age in disproportionate number. The time for discovery is over. It’s time, it’s way past time, to stop the slaughter of girls and gender expansive youth.

 

(By Dan Moshenberg)

(Photo Credit: Richard Ross)

A New Jersey probation officer is arrested for assaulting a child in his charge: Why are local news making her seem older?

A state probation officer from Wall, New Jersey has been charged with sexual assault of a probationer under his supervision. The officer, Henry C. Cirignano is facing two counts of second-degree sexual assault, one for, “allegedly coercing the victim and the other related to his position of power over the victim as her probation officer.” Cirignano has been suspended with his access to court facilities revoked.

Though early in the investigation, that Cirignanohas not been terminated from his high-paying position ($88,266 per year) is telling for how the state of New Jersey is willing to compromise to protect the accused child molester. Consistently the survivor is called a “woman” even though, according to the official misconduct charges from Monmouth County, Cirignano’s conviction would subject him to provisions of Megan’s Law:

“If convicted of Official Misconduct, Cirignano faces a mandatory minimum sentence of 5 years in a New Jersey state prison without parole and a lifetime ban on public employment in the State of New Jersey.

“If convicted of Sexual Assault, Cirignano faces up to 10 years in a New Jersey State prison on each county, subject to the provisions of the ‘No Early Release Act’ (NERA) requiring him to serve 85 percent of the sentence imposed before becoming eligible for release on parole. He would also be subject to the provisions of ‘Megan’s Law’ and Parole Supervision for Life requiring a minimum of 15 years of parole supervision following his release from prison.”

The Megan’s Lawsex offender registration was signed into law in 1994 in New Jersey, after 7-year-old Megan Kanka went missing from her home in Hamilton Township, having been kidnapped, raped and murdered by sex offender Jesse Timmendequas. Her body had been located nearby less than 24 hours later. Megan’s Law requires communities to be notified when sex offenders move into their neighborhoods. 

That bit of information in the press proves two problems with how New Jersey incarcerates and monitors youth; and then how those youths are portrayed when people in positions of power use said power to abuse them. 

In New Jersey, despite the decline of in care facilities, 274 youths are currently committed to those facilities. Most youths are incarcerated for nonviolent offenses; the second reason youth are in juvenile justice is parole violations. 

According to the Urban Institute, New Jersey disproportionately incarcerates Black youths over White youths; despite being only 14 percent of the youth population, Black youths make up 73 percent of those committed to secure juvenile facilities. Even more nefarious, after release, those youths are supervised constantly by the state either through probation or aftercare treatments. The Garden State is a high spender on making sure youths are incarcerated and under control.

Second, when probations officers are accused of abusing their positions of power, news and press outlets, including press releases from the county itself, look to hide the extent of the abuse. Cirignano’s abuse would have been terrible because he sexually assaulted someone he could send back to prison if they had fought back. The person he was monitoring and abusing was a child, who could have easily been sent back to juvenile corrections. Given the population and problem of youth in incarceration, media outlets and the state have decided that children in New Jersey, children who might be in need of mental health services or actually care and consideration, are not allowed to be children.  

(Infographic Credit: Urban Institute)

Jane Doe, aka Jenny, and the hellhole that is Harris County Jail (Part One)

Texas built a special hell for women, the Harris County Jail, in Houston, Texas. The story of “Jane Doe”, aka “Jenny”, attest to that, but first some general context. The United States boasts 3,000 counties. Most haven’t executed anyone in the last 40 years. Harris County Jail is the outlier. Between 1977 and 2015, twenty counties executed 10 or ore people. Of the twenty, 14 killed between 10 and 19 people; four executed between 20 and 49; one executed 55 people, and then there’s Harris County Jail. Since 1976, Harris County executed 125 people: “If Harris County, TX, were a state, it would be second only to the rest of Texas in terms of executions.” Now that the use of capital punishment has begun diminish, Harris County is leading the way in life-without-parole sentences. According to a recent report, in 2017, Harris County sentenced 21 people to life imprisonment without parole. The next three counties combined totaled 13.  Harris County is a U.S. chapter in the global labor of necropower: “Necropower … account[s] for the various ways in which … new and unique forms of social existence in which vast populations are subjected to conditions of life conferring upon them the status of living dead … Under conditions of necropower, the lines between resistance and suicide, sacrifice and redemption, martyrdom and freedom are blurred.” Welcome to Harris County criminal justice.

Not satisfied to kill and contain for life far and away more people than any other jurisdiction, Harris County has targeted children and the poor. In the rest of Texas and across the United States, juvenile detention numbers are dropping, but not in Harris County, Texas. According to reports this week, the Harris County Juvenile Justice Center, which has been overcrowded for years, is now severely, dangerously overcrowded. Youth crime is down, and yet the detained juvenile population is skyrocketing. Why? Between 2010 and 2017, the average number of detained children charged with minor offenses increased by 64 percent. In 2017, children charged with minor offenses were locked up for close to three weeks, on average. That’s twice as long as the wait in 2010. From 2010 to 2017, the number of “low risk” African-American children held in detention rose by 75 percent. This spike has occurred in a mere seven years, and in a state in which 17-year-olds are sent to adult courts and jail.

Meanwhile, Harris County Jail is equally overcrowded and toxic, and one of the reasons is the cash bail system in Harris County. According to recent reports, Harris County systematically denies poor and indigent plaintiffs access to personal bonds or any other forms of assistance that are supposedly available. To the contrary, judges routinely raise bail precipitously. Consider what happened to Shamira Brown. Shamira Brown, single mother of two, resident of Houston, thought that, during Harvey, her neighbor had stolen her daughter’s iPad. A fight ensued. Shamira Brown was released on an unsecured bond and told to show up in court in a few days. The courthouse had been flooded and ruined in the hurricane. Shamira Brown repeatedly called the hotline for information. No one answered. On September 8, the day of her court appearance, Shamira Brown dutifully took three buses to get to the courthouse. The courthouse was closed. She called the hotline. No one answered. Now, there’s a warrant out for Shamira Brown’s arrest, for failure to appear in court. This is a common story in Harris County, and, since Harvey, the numbers have only grown exponentially. Those who need pretrial monitoring get nothing and then get a warrant served. As Shamira Brown noted, “I didn’t get anything in the mail, no lawyer papers. They just never told me where to go. Y’all wasn’t even doing your part, but you’re quick to put out a warrant for someone?”

According to the most recent report, 78% of Harris County Jail detainees are awaiting trial.

Last week, Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis put a name and face to the situation, “Sandra Bland was arrested and kept in jail because she didn’t have $500.” Sandra Bland died, or was killed, July 13, 2015, in the Waller County Jail, not far from the Harris County Jail. Harris County is currently being sued for its “assembly line justice for poor people.” More like sewage line injustice for poor people, people of color, children, women, people living with mental disabilities. This is the context for Jane Doe’s and Jenny’s experiences in the hellhole that is Harris County Jail.

 

(Photo Credit: Houston Chronicle / Eric Gay / STF)

In jails and schools across the United States, children suffer solitary confinement

The isolation cell in the juvenile pod at Onondaga County Justice Center

Across the United States, children in elementary schools are being placed in what are called seclusion rooms, a euphemism for solitary confinement. Across the United States, children in juvenile detention are also regularly placed in solitary confinement. Recently a parent in Phoenix, Arizona, expressed dismay at a “seclusion room” in her son’s elementary school. At the same time, in upstate New York, the Onondaga County Legislature voted unanimously to ban youth solitary confinement across the county criminal justice system. While the decision of the Onondaga County board is welcome news, it came as the result of years of organizing from civic and community organizations. Why are we so comfortable with dumping children into boxes, and who are we, who do we become, if we continue to let the practice continue and become every day more normal?

The Phoenix story is both straightforward and bent. Stephanie Vasquez picked a bilingual language immersion school with a good academic reputation for her son. One day, while taking her son to his classroom, she noticed a child, sitting in a windowless room, or closet, that was partially painted black, and had only a desk and chair. Stephanie Vasquez had worked for years as a middle school teacher and then worked as a volunteer teacher in a local women’s prison, and so she recognized the scene: “I was a little taken aback at first. Psychologically, I can only imagine what it does to a young child. It’s solitary confinement, just on a child level … The school-to-prison pipeline is a real thing to me. Having been a teacher for eight years, and then going to Perryville — the correlations between the two are eerie.”

Stephanie Vasquez asked the school about the space, and she was referred to their website, where she learned that those punished for “disruptive behavior” are sent to the room for a maximum of 15 minutes, to which Vasquez responds, “I don’t think it should happen at all … How long should they really even be in a confined black space? Probably never.”

It’s eerie … and altogether commonplace.

The Onondaga County Justice Center opened in 1995, and from its inception to today, the County has described the jail as a “state-of-the-art” facility. Community activists have differed with that description. They pointed to the agonizing death of Chuneice Patterson, in 2009.

Last year, the New York Civil Liberties Union and Legal Services of Central New York filed a suit against the Onondaga County Sheriff’s Office practice of placing 16- and 17-year-olds in solitary confinement at the Justice Center.  They charged that between October 2015 and August 2016, the Onondaga County Justice Center dumped 80 teens, mostly youth of color, into solitary confinement. In January, the civil rights division of the United States Department of Justice gave formal support to that lawsuit. In February 2017, a Federal judge ordered a halt to the practice. In June, the New York Civil Liberties Union and Legal Services of Central New York arrived at a settlement with the Onondaga County Sheriff’s Office, and in September, the Legislature voted unanimously to ban the practice.

Why does it take so much time and energy to stop torturing children? Stephanie Vasquez saw a child in a closet and knew it was solitary confinement. Others saw “the box” at Onondaga and knew it was a cage. Stephanie Vasquez knew children were being treated as prisoners; and others knew child prisoners were being treated as animals; and the sequence of alchemical transmutation continues straight to hell. In both Arizona and New York, the specific institutions claim to be state-of-the-art, and they are. They were designed by the best in the field. What does that say about our art? Where is the art in dumping children into closets, boxes, and cages? How long should a child be in a confined black space? Never.

Those in isolation are allowed one hour a day in this `recreation’ space.

 

(Photo Credits: Syracuse.com)

“There’s something really, really going on in that place for a 14-year-old to want to kill herself”

In the United States, children are routinely thrown into solitary confinement, often for the most trivial reasons and often for long periods of time. As of a study conducted last year, 28 states and the District of Columbia prohibit the use of punitive solitary confinement in juvenile correctional facilities. This list of 29 includes jurisdictions that allow up to four hours per day. Additionally, of these 29 states, 25 allow for solitary confinement for non-punitive reasons, such as so-called safety concerns. Of the 25, 12 allow for indefinite solitary confinement of juveniles … for their own good. These are the `good’ states. At the other end, seven states have no limits on solitary confinement of juveniles: Alabama, Georgia, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Texas, and Wyoming. The remaining 15 states offer a smorgasbord of juvenile solitary confinement offerings, ranging from six hours to 90 days. Four states allow for children to be thrown into the hole for more than 5 days. North Carolina and West Virginia allow for up to 10 days isolation. Until last year, California allowed for 90 days of isolation. As of January 1, 2017, new laws went into effect concerning California’s use of solitary confinement for children. With that change, Wisconsin became the winner of the race to hell, with its allowance of up to 60 days in isolation for children. This week, four children, and their attorneys, families, friends and supporters, said NO MORE, and filed a lawsuit. This is the story of Meranda Davis’ daughter, known as KD, currently held at Copper Lake School for Girls, one of two juvenile detention facilities in Wisconsin. It’s not a school, and it’s not for girls. It’s hell, and it has been so for a long time.

The lawsuit opens: “The State of Wisconsin operates the Lincoln Hills School for Boys and the Copper Lake School for Girls, which incarcerate approximately 150-200 youth who are as young as 14 years old, in remote northern Wisconsin. The State routinely subjects these youth to unlawful solitary confinement, mechanical restraints and pepper spraying. Prior to state and federal raids on the facility at the end of 2015, staff also regularly physically abused youth in the facility. Currently, Wisconsin’s juvenile corrections officials lock up approximately 15 to 20% percent or more of the facilities’ young residents in solitary confinement cells for 22 or 23 hours per day. Many of these children are forced to spend their only free hour of time per day outside of a solitary confinement cell in handcuffs and chained to a table. Officers also repeatedly and excessively use Bear Mace and other pepper sprays against the youth, causing them excruciating pain and impairing their breathing.”

While the situation is cruel and usual torture, the real point is that two years ago, the federal government put Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake Schools on notice, and not only did nothing happen, the situation actually worsened. As Laurence Dupuis, attorney for the ACLU of Wisconsin, noted, “Usually when the ACLU shows up, people start changing their habits and things get a bit better. We saw none of that here.”

Meranda Davis takes the story from there: “If you choose to steal cars, you deserve to wind up in a juvenile jail. I know that. But nobody deserves to be treated the way they treat people in there … She call me crying after getting out of solitary. They send kids for two weeks just for talking back in class. One time, they were punishing a girl in solitary, so they just fired a whole can of pepper spray into the unit. Everyone was coughing and crying. My daughter was coughing up blood … She said that they kept on throwing her in confinement and she basically lost her mind. She had a seizure. She just lost her mind and didn’t know what to do because she didn’t have any support. She just was like thrown in a room and nothing.” According to Meranda Davis, her daughter tried to kill herself, “There’s something really, really going on in that place for a 14-year-old, she was 14 at the time, to want to kill herself.”

There’s something really really wrong with a State and in a nation that drives children to suicide. Copper Lake School for Girls and Lincoln Hills School for Boys should be shut down, but that is only the beginning. We can’t continue to throw children into cages, we can’t continue to throw away their lives and the lives of their families and communities, and we can’t continue to condone and support torture. End solitary confinement of children now. End solitary confinement now. Without delay and without exception. As Meranda Davis said of her daughter, “She has big hopes and she is the reason I am standing here right now. I want her changed. I don’t want to see her come out a wicked person times 10.”

 

(Photo Credit 1: Kyle Rogers/Northwoods River News) (Image Credit: New York Times/Amanda Lanzone)

Australia’s “I can’t breathe” moment … or not

 


Last night, Australians watched in horror as the investigative journalism series Four Corners showed the torture and abuse of children in a so-called juvenile justice facility in the Northern Territory. The show opens: “The image you have just seen isn’t from Guantanamo bay…. or Abu Ghraib.. but Australia in 2015… A boy, hooded, shackled, strapped to a chair and left alone. It is barbaric. This is juvenile justice in the Northern Territory, a system that punishes troubled children instead of rehabilitating them – where children as young as 10 are locked up and 13 year olds are kept in solitary confinement. Most of the images secured by Four Corners in this investigation have never been seen publicly. They are shocking – but for the sake of these children who are desperate for the truth to be known, we cannot look away.” It may “shocking” but none of it is new. We have known all along.

At a number of points in the near hour-long documentary, children are heard to plead, “I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.” To no one’s surprise, their pleas go unattended, or worse, their pleas incite the guards to further and more intense violence. From Staten Island to Berrimah, where the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre is located, “I can’t breathe”. Eric Garner haunts the world … to no one’s surprise.

To no one’s surprise, a majority of the children in the video and center are Aboriginal. To no one’s surprise, Indigenous incarceration in Australia is rampant.

To no one’s surprise, this very torture of Aboriginal children in custody had been reported, and largely ignored, last year. It takes a video to document the destruction of a child.

When indigenous leader Nova Peris was a Senator, she raised this very issue in Parliament, and now she asks, “How many more royal commissions do Aboriginal people have to get excited about? There was a lot of hope when the royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody was done, yet barely any recommendations were implemented. In 1997, the Bringing Them Home report about children in out-of-home care gave us hope, but what actually happened there, if anything? No-one listened. These kids need rehabilitation, they don’t need torture: hate breeds hate, they need to know that there is life outside. Over the years people brushed these kids off, calling them ‘little bastards’. These are kids as young as 11 years old, how are they even thinking criminal activities. Let’s look at the underlying issues here.”

To no one’s surprise, the Indigenous Affairs Minister ignored earlier reports of abuse. They didn’t “pique” his interest.

So now, the Northern Territory Minister has been fired; the “shocked” Prime Minister has called for a Royal Commission; and the guards in the video are still guarding the very children they were taped abusing.

Abu Ghraib. Guantanamo. Eric Garner. The new Gulag Archipelago, same as it ever was. We all share Australia’s shame. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.

 

(Image Credit: Fastcodesign) (Photo Credit: ABC Four Corners)

DC Will Vote Wednesday on a Bill to Keep Teens Out of Adult Jails

In America’s capital, juveniles in the criminal justice system are treated badly. Federal prosecutors in Washington, DC have “unfettered discretion” to send youth to adult court and correctional facilities, and they often do.

Take Alisha, for example, who was tried and charged as an adult in DC Superior Court when she was only 16 years old. She was sent to DC’s Correctional Treatment Facility (CTF). There are no special units for female youth at CTF, so Alisha was sent to solitary confinement. For weeks at a time, she was on lockdown for 23 hours a day, was unable to attend school, and could not participate in any programming available at the jail. Her attorney fought to move her to a more appropriate place that could also address her mental health concerns, but she remained here for a year and a half. Understandably, Alisha was depressed as lonely. In solitary confinement, she attempted suicide.

Alisha is not alone. “Youth who are incarcerated in adult facilities are 36 times more likely to commit suicide than their peers in juvenile facilities,” according to Carmen Daugherty, Policy Director at Campaign for Youth Justice. They are also much likelier to be physically and sexually assaulted. “The adult system is no place for kids,” Daugherty declared.

A May 2014 report by DC Lawyers for Youth and Campaign for Youth Justice stated that “incarcerating youth in the adult system is developmentally inappropriate, unsafe, and does not decrease recidivism.” In fact, the report found that trying youth in the adult system actually increases recidivism.

DC is a particularly bad place for juveniles, as the report shows. A criminal justice consulting firm assessed the Juvenile Unit at CTF in 2013. They found that: “1) the facility space is too limited to provide adequate programming or sufficient physical activity, 2) most youth are not able to have in-person visitation with their family members, 3) some staff working the unit are inadequately trained to address the needs of youth, and 4) the amount of structured programming offered to youth is inadequate.” Yet, children continue to be sentenced here.

Who are the youth most affected by DC’s current practices? Disproportionately, they come from the most under-resourced neighborhoods in the district: low-income communities of color. A staggering 97% of the youth incarcerated at CTF between 2007 and 2012 were African American and 3% were Latino. Almost all of them come from the eastern half of the district or identified as homeless.

Twenty-three states have taken steps to decrease reliance on the adult justice systems in youth cases. Yet, the nation’s capital continues to prosecute youth as adults. Public policy in Washington, DC needs to change.

This Wednesday, November 12, the DC Council’s Judiciary Committee is voting on The Youth Offender Accountability and Rehabilitation Act of 2014 (Bill 20-825). YOARA would keep teenagers awaiting trial out of adult jails, keep more juvenile cases in family court, and end the practice of “once an adult, always an adult,” which allows teens’ prior offenses to be used against them. Contact DC Councilmembers and urge them to pass YOARA here!

(Photo Credit: African Globe)