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)

Children in torture chambers in schools across the United States

Disturbing reports came out this week that show that children, overwhelmingly children living with disabilities, are kept in solitary confinement across the United States. In some places, the rooms are called “seclusion rooms” and, in other places, “scream rooms.” Call them what they are: solitary confinement, the hole, torture chambers.

Torture is not too grand or extreme a description. Children have committed suicide in these rooms, in schools like the ones around the corner from you. Children have come home with injuries which needed surgery. Often, staff caused these injuries. Across the country, children, and their parents, live with symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder. The list goes on.

This is part of a national war on children. The incarceration and torture of children in schools occurs at a time when girls are being sent to jail for status offenses while boys are not. Taken together, this is the national policy of protection for children, for children with special needs, and for girls. And if you’re a girl with special needs, you’re in trouble. We have traveled far, and quickly, from the days of “suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven.”

At the national level, the only shock here are the numbers, which are assumed to be lower than the actual incidences, and the shock, the fact that, despite report after report after report after report, each report is `surprising’. Amnesia has always been the alibi for the citizens of the Torture State. It allows us to forget that our elected representatives killed legislation that would end the policy of school-based solitary confinement. It allows us to forget that some places in the country, like Montgomery County, Virginia, have done away seclusion rooms and replaced them with healthier, more reliable systems that actually work. It allows us to forget both evidence and hope.

So as not to forget, here’s a story, taken from a US Senate staff report issued this past February. The report finds such cases occur across the country. Minnesota is an instance, not an exception:

Minnesota: In January 2004, an eight-year-old girl began attending Jefferson Elementary School in the Willmar Public School District. Her mother described her as a `little girl who loved to go to school, even though the child had been diagnosed with a communication disorder and designated as developmentally delayed with speech and language impairment at age three.

“Since kindergarten, the girl’s IEP had included a behavioral intervention plan that authorized the use of restraints and seclusions when she exhibited certain behaviors. Eventually, the school district and her mother had the child assessed by an outside evaluator, who did not recommend the use of restraints or seclusions. However, the techniques remained in the girl’s behavioral intervention plan during the 2005 to 2006 school year. The mother said she had agreed to the use of seclusion, in an area the school called a `quiet room,’ only if necessary. However, some reports indicate the girl’s teacher secluded her forty-four times in one school year.102 The girl’s mother also said the teacher made the child sit at a `thinking desk’ perfectly still for thirty minutes straight and demeaned and belittled the child when she could not hold this posture. If the girl fidgeted or made any noise, her teacher would yell at her and sometimes put her into restraints, including a prone hold.103 During one incident in April 2006, the teacher forced the girl into the seclusion room while she was on her way to the bathroom, causing the child to urinate on herself.

“Aides reported that the teacher’s classroom, which was somewhat hidden in the basement of Jefferson, was `more a punishment/torture area than a classroom,’ and `run very much like a secret room that you are not supposed to talk about.’”

Suffer the children for of such is the kingdom of heaven.

 

(Image Credit: Ward Zwart / New York Times)

Boys will be boys, and girls will be jailed

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. This is the vicious cycle that has been constructed in exactly the same period that has witnessed girl power on the rise: “In a 2010 national census of youth in custody, girls comprised 16% of all detained youth but 40% of those were detained for a status offense. At one time and in some states, girls comprised more than 70% of youth detained for status offenses.” This is the United States’ program of no girl left behind. This is girls’ educational program in the United States.

Why are girls so lucky, when it comes to prison? One answer is paternalism, which expresses itself as a need to protect girls from themselves and the world; a curious comfort with “with using locked confinement to access services for girls with significant needs”; and intolerance towards “girls who are non-cooperative and non-compliant.” Boys will be boys, and girls will be jailed.

At the same time, “lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) youth are twice as likely as other youngsters to be detained in a juvenile detention facility for status offenses.” Why? LGBTQ youth often run away from home or, more precisely, from family rejection. According to one report, 40 percent of homeless youth self-identify as LGBTQ. Living on the streets means engaging in “survival crimes”, like theft. But it also involves an expanding and intensifying universe of so-called status offenses. Once again, LGBTQ youth are jailed to protect them from themselves.

This program for LGBTQ kids is the United States national education program. In schools LGBTQ children suffer harsher punishment, both formal and informal, for truancy, absenteeism, and dress code violations. A vicious school-to-prison pipeline drives the “non-cooperative and non-compliant” further and further into the ground … or else.

Today, the Treatment Advocacy Center released The Treatment of Persons with Mental Illness in Prisons and Jails: A State Survey. Here are the numbers: “In 2012, there were estimated to be 356,268 inmates with severe mental illness in prisons and jails. There were also approximately 35,000 patients with severe mental illness in state psychiatric hospitals. Thus, the number of mentally ill persons in prisons and jails was 10 times the number remaining in state hospitals.” Since 2008, the situation has worsened.

From girls to LGBTQ youth to those living with severe mental illness, the crime committed is that of living, of being alive. And what of those at the crossroads of this nightmare, what of young lesbians who are living with severe mental illness? They are marked as non-cooperative and non-compliant, many times over. They were never meant to survive.

 

(Photo Credit: https://youngfolksrevolution.wordpress.com)

Stop sending children to prison!

 

In 2003, children started disappearing in Luzerne County, in northeastern Pennsylvania. By 2009, over 5000 had vanished, or more precisely had been disappeared. They were sold into juvenile prison system in what some call a kids-for-cash scam. In 2011, Judges Mark Ciaverella and Michael Conahan pled guilty to wire fraud and income tax fraud.

Over a period of five or six years, two private juvenile prisons, PA Child Care and Western PA Child Care, paid the judges to send over 5000 children to jail. Many were first time offenders. Some, like Edward Kenzakoski, committed suicide. Others, like Jamie Quinn, walked away. But all suffered harm. In 2009, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court voided almost all the juvenile convictions from 2003 on.

Recently, the two private detention companies settled a kids-for-cash civil suit, agreeing to pay $2.5 million in compensation. It’s estimated that the companies had paid the two judges $2.6 million, and so there’s a kind of tragic elegance to the number, except that there is nothing elegant in this story.

In 2011, the kids-for-cash story seemed like a horror, a nightmare. Now we know it’s the tip of a global iceberg. Across the United States, and beyond, nation-States have decided that the best place for children is prison. Often, that prison is one for adults.

For example, the City of New York Board of Corrections just released a report, entitled “Three Adolescents with Mental Illness in Punitive Segregation at Rikers Island.” The report follows three boys, Jimmy, Matthew and Carlos: “This report describes the life and jail experience of three mentally ill adolescents who were each sentenced to more than 200 days in punitive segregation at Rikers Island. Mentally ill adolescents in punitive segregation merit special attention because they are the most vulnerable prisoners in custody. New York State is one of only two states in the country where all 16‐ and 17‐ year‐olds are under the jurisdiction of the adult criminal justice system regardless of the offense. In New York City jails, all 16‐, 17‐, and 18‐year‐olds are deemed “adolescents” and are housed separately from adults. Adolescents make up approximately 5% of the average daily population of prisoners at Rikers Island. A recent one‐day snapshot of the jail population showed that almost 27% of the 586 adolescents at Rikers Island were in punitive segregation, and roughly 71% of those in punitive segregation were diagnosed as mentally ill.”

What was their crime? They were children living with mental illnesses. What was their treatment? 200 days in `the box’.

In Texas this week, reports emerged of staff violence against inmates in the Phoenix Program, which was designed to reduce the violence in juvenile facilities. The reports suggest that the violence is both widespread and extreme. How does the State respond? A few staff members are fired, a few `disciplined’, and then back to business as usual.

The private juvenile prison industry and the public juvenile prison industry expand, arm in arm in arm in arm. The State absolves itself of oversight, and children are maimed and broken, in so many ways. Across the country, the rate of girls being incarcerated rises precipitously, and little or nothing is done to attend to the particularities of girls behind bars.

This situation is spreading, and not only across the United States. In certain neighborhoods and communities, particularly communities of color, in the United Kingdom, a night, or more, in detention is a default response to pretty much any whiff of `a problem.’ According to a recent report: “Fifteen per cent of the total number of overnight detentions in 2010 and 2011 were of girls. This is a surprisingly high percentage as girls generally represent less than 5 per cent of criminal sentences.”

Stop sending children to prison. Stop sending children to `overnight detention.’ Stop sending children into solitary confinement. Stop the torture of children.

 

(Image Credit: Prison Culture)

A specter haunts Pennsylvania

Sharon Wiggins died in March. Wiggins was a 62-year-old Black woman living with serious health problems. But it wasn’t her health that did her in. What killed Sharon Wiggins was the criminal justice system in Pennsylvania. Sharon Wiggins died behind bars at SCI-Muncy, the maximum security and intake `facility’ for all women prisoners in Pennsylvania, as well as the site of its death row for women.

Wiggins entered Muncy at the age of 17, convicted initially to death and then, a few years later, to life without parole. She spent 45 years behind bars. When she died she was the oldest and the longest serving woman prisoner in Pennsylvania. That’s no mean feat. Pennsylvania has more prisoners who began as juvenile lifers than any other state in the Union. Effectively, this means Pennsylvania has more juvenile lifers than any place else in the world.

Reports suggest that Wiggins set out, early on, to improve her life, to atone for her crimes, sins, and mistakes. She finished a degree at Penn State and when on to tutor and to manage tutoring programs. She completed thousands of educational certificate programs. She mentored others; she took care of women and helped women grow, and not only women prisoners. Nancy Sponeybarger, a former counselor at Muncy, has said, “As I got to know her a little bit, she was the one person who always made me feel my humanity.”

On another occasion, Sponeybarger elaborated, “She’s grown into a really insightful, compassionate, capable older woman – despite all the odds, because it’s not like you have a ton of role models when you’re in prison, especially when you’re tossed in there as a little girl.”

Especially when you’re tossed in there as a little girl.

Last June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it’s unconstitutional to sentence juveniles to mandatory life sentences without parole. Wiggins applied for release, and she and her lawyers and supporters hoped that she would be released, at last: “I want to know what it feels like to wake up by myself. Here, you live on public view. There’s always a big piece of glass on your door. I want to wake up by myself. I want to know how it feels to walk down the street. I want to know how it feels to sit in the car and hear the rain just beat down. I want to know how it feels to sit with my sister and have a cup of coffee.”

The State dragged its feet, and Sharon Wiggins died. She never got to know.

Pennsylvania leads the nation and the world in the incarceration of children for life without parole. Last year, nationally, close to 1600 people were serving out juvenile life sentences without parole. Of the girls, almost 80% reported physical abuse, and over 77% reported sexual abuse.

And it gets worse. Historically and immediately, juvenile justice institutions are designed for boys. They don’t work for boys, mind you, but for girls, they’re particularly and specifically toxic, lethal even. The research on this systematic `oversight’ is abundant and easily available.

Custody for girls virtually guarantees that that their unique needs are not met and they react differently to their treatment than boys. Sentencing young girls to LWOP (life without parole) in adult court exacerbates girls’ unique issues in several ways. First, with the small number of women in the prison population, girls are often sent to women’s prisons with adult offenders rather than to separate units for youth offenders.  Girls are all too often subjected to sexual abuse and rape while in prison. Male corrections staff at women’s prisons may use coercive methods to initiate sexual relationships with inmates, or may abuse their position to obtain sexual favors. Sentencing girls to serve a life sentence in adult prison creates circumstances that are very traumatic and that should raise the specter of a punishment that is cruel and unusual.”

A specter haunts Pennsylvania, the specter of a punishment that is cruel and unusual, the specter of compassion and decency, the specter of justice for Sharon Peachie Wiggins. It is the specter of those children tossed in there as little girls.

 

(Photo Credit: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

What’s happening in Baltimore? Incarceration

Governor of Maryland Martin O’Malley just announced the building of a new juvenile detention center specifically for youth charged as adults. It will cost a hefty $100 million dollars … at least. All this is supposed to ensure the safety of Baltimore and its youth.

Revisiting Maurizio Lazzarato’s recent argument that debt is the neoliberal condition, let’s think about the penal debt imposed here on women and men. But not just any women and men. In Baltimore’s Detention Center, eight out of ten women and nine out of ten men are black (Jail Daily Extract, division of Pretrial and Detention Services).

Baltimore’s Detention Center is part of the surge of incarceration that has taken place in the United States within the past thirty years. As sociologist Loic Wacquant has noted, in “the stingy social state and the gargantuan penal state,” three determinants make people more likely to be incarcerated: class, race and place. That’s how the state cares for the poor, for minority men and women.

Baltimore is one of the few cities in the United States that lost financial control of its detention center. In 1991, following a budget crisis, the city relinquished management of its detention center to the State, at the behest of then Governor Donald Schaeffer. The State’s agenda included the construction of Central Booking, opened in 1995. For many in Baltimore, Central Booking became the place to stay. Previously, one stayed in one of nine district police stations, which were more integrated into neighborhood communities. But neighborhood and community facilities were insufficiently “tough on crime,” and so they had to go.

In the logic of creating a penal debt, targeted populations have to be put into a position where they owe their freedom to the authorities. In Baltimore, the police have intensified their activity, thanks to the war on drugs, the war on the poor, the various wars on women, including the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act and the welfare reform of 1996.

Central Booking was hailed  as a model of “efficiency”. That efficiency meant the increasingly robotic incarceration of the increasingly impoverished populations of Baltimore, where 63% of the population is African American.  As a result of intensified and broadened police activity, 90% of people incarcerated in Baltimore City are awaiting trial compared to 63% nationally (Division of Pretrial Detention and Services Daily Population Report, January 4, 2010). 89% of the incarcerated are African Americans. Once in the system, your penal credit score drops. And that, in Baltimore, is called efficiency.

With 12 million “bodies being processed” every year by Central Booking institutions across the country, one wonders why the State is so invested in this form of manipulation of bodies. In the current ownership society, the penal credit score is now clearly attached to faster rates of prison recidivism, thanks to programs that keep track of the lives of former prisoners. For instance, Johns Hopkins (both the university and the hospital) demands a background check, criminal and financial, for any applicant to any job, including that of volunteer. This system of background checks has become so routine that its threatening panoptic dimension has been into “keeping Hopkins safe”. “Tough on crime” morphs into “safe” at work.

What is happening in Baltimore? Debt through incarceration. The impoverished youth of Baltimore is going to incur more penal debt through a project that invests scarce social welfare money into a prison that will have to be filled … with the impoverished youth of Baltimore. The circle is closed … efficiently.

 

(Photo Credit: Baltimore Sun)