Nebraska built a special hell for children: solitary confinement

Last week, the ACLU of Nebraska issued a report on the use of solitary confinement in juvenile centers in Nebraska: “On any given day in Nebraska, juvenile justice facilities routinely subject kids in their care to solitary confinement … For children, who are still developing and more vulnerable to irreparable harm, the risks of solitary are magnified – protracted isolation and solitary confinement can be permanently damaging, especially for those with mental illness. It is time to scrutinize the use of solitary confinement on children. Nebraska should strictly limit and uniformly regulate isolation practices.” This report builds on year after year of reports on the epidemic of juvenile solitary confinement across the country.

As the county sinks, so sinks Nebraska. Actually, Nebraska is leading the race to the bottom, since the state boasts the third highest per capita number of youth in juvenile facilities. Furthermore, 55% of the juvenile “residents” are youth of color, while only 20% of Nebraska’s youth are youth of color.

Children across the state are sent into solitary for days, weeks, and sometimes months. Often the “reason” for extended solitary confinement is a minor infraction. Often it’s the child’s “attitude.” Who puts a child into isolation for 90 days for having too many books? In Nebraska, quite a few would … and do.

Nebraska has nine juvenile detention centers. Two are run by the Department of Health and Human Services; two are run by the Department of Corrections; and five are county facilities. While all have problems, the real crisis is in the Department of Corrections centers and the county facilities. Two of the county facilities don’t even keep records of how long children are kept in solitary; another has no policy governing the use of solitary confinement. It’s not sufficiently important.

What is consistent is inconsistency. From one center to another, a child can be isolated from 90 days to no more than 5. In the two Department of Corrections facilities, where children have been adjudicated as adults, the rule is “The total number of days that an inmate may be placed on restriction, for each convicted offense, shall not exceed 90 calendar days.”

The report highlights the story of Lisa, who was 14 when she was thrown into solitary: “The room had mesh over the window so you couldn’t look outside. It was an empty room with a cement floor, just plain white walls. There was no mat, nothing in there with you, the room was totally stripped bare. When they closed the steel door, I’d hold onto the door jamb, trying to make it impossible for them to shut me in. Ironically (because I was in solitary for self harm), I survived my time alone by just falling back on hurting myself. I’d bite my own cheeks and tongue, banging my head on the wall. Being locked down alone just reinforced the unhealthy beliefs I already had so I heard `You’re a freak, you don’t belong in the world and you don’t belong around other people.’ What are the facilities trying to accomplish? If it is to manage somebody’s behavior so they don’t harm themselves or someone else, it doesn’t work–it just creates more isolation, anger and separation and hopelessness. We need to be cognizant of how many traumatic and difficult, violating experiences these youths have already had. Solitary just re-traumatizes them. Much of what was done to me was out of ignorance, not evil, but I want people to recognize that we can change things for the better.’”

There is no “ignorance”. The widespread torture of children in juvenile centers across Nebraska is public policy. No one is surprised that a state that leads the country in incarceration of children, and in particular of children of color, leads the country in torture of children once they’re `in the system.’ The answer? Close the prisons; take their money and put it in health care, education, recreation, culture, and everything that sustains life, creativity and wellbeing. Another world is necessary.

 

(Infograph Credit: ACLU of Nebraska)

End the epidemic of mass incarceration of women!

 


Once again, the celebration of Thanksgiving, in the United States, coincides with the 16 Days of Activism to End Violence Against Women. One way to acknowledge that intersection could be to address the place of mass incarceration of women. The New York Times lead editorial today, “Mass Imprisonment and Public Health”, argues that incarceration has reached epidemic proportions, and, they insist, when they say “epidemic”, they mean that as literal, not figurative. Nebraska legislators this week heard that, in their state, prisons and jails have become the leading institutions for health care provision for those living with mental illness: “In Nebraska, the Douglas County Jail holds the most mentally ill people.” The legislators heard of the mental illness of people as they enter prison and jail, and they heard of the mental health crises engendered by rampant use of solitary confinement. In Boston, on Tuesday, when over a thousand people marched in solidarity with Ferguson residents and protesters, they marched to the South Bay House of Corrections, chanting, “Black lives matter!” and “We see you!”

We see you. Where are the women in this vision?

On Tuesday, inmates at Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women reached a settlement with the Virginia women’s prison. In 2012, five prisoners, represented by the Legal Aid Justice Center, sued the prison, claiming that the medical care was so bad that it violated the U.S. Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Last week, a Federal judge extended the suit to a class action suit, covering all 1200 prisoners. The judge also ruled that hiring a contractor doesn’t absolve state prison officials of their responsibility to provide adequate health care. He further ruled that the women had serious medical needs. When the State heard that, they caved, and the settlement ensued.

What’s going on here? A Vera Institute report issued last week gives one version, under the title GREATER HEALTH DISPARITIES FOR WOMEN: “The number of women imprisoned in the U.S. increased nearly 6.5-fold from 1980 to 2010. Today, women comprise about 7 percent of all prisoners and 13 percent of all local jail populations, and face a greater burden of disease than incarcerated men, which is partly explained by disturbingly high rates of sexual victimization, substance use, and trauma. An estimated 6 percent are preg­nant, with the majority having conceived within 3 months of release from a prior incarceration. A significant percentage of these women have not seen an obstetrician on a regular basis prior to incarceration and are in unhealthy states due to substance use and malnutrition prior to entering custody. While a structured environment, regular meals, and access to care can improve birth outcomes, according to a recent survey, state prisons often fail to use best prac­tices and established standards when caring for pregnant women.”

Additionally, “Today, about 14.5 percent of men and 31 percent of women in jails have a serious mental illness, such as schizophrenia, major depression, or bipolar disorder, compared to 3.2 and 4.9 percent respectively in the general population … Women experience higher rates of sexual victimization than men. A 2008 survey found three times as many females (13.7 percent) reported being sexually victimized by another prisoner than males (4.2 percent); and that twice as many women reported being sexually victimized by staff.”

All of this happens under the title of “correction.” What exactly is the State “correcting” when it violates women’s rights, bodies, lives, hopes and dreams, and does so without compunction? What is the public policy here that condemns women on the basis of their gender? Want to end violence against women? End the epidemic of mass incarceration of women. Do it now.

 

(Image Credit: Vera Institute of Justice)