Archive for the ‘8th Amendment’ Category

More and more people are talking about the inhumanity of locking young kids up in solitary confinement. It’s a topic that I’ve written about before and will continue to write about because I’ve seen firsthand the abusiveness of this “practice” especially on  mentally disturbed kids.

International groups have criticized the United States for using solitary confinement on the young, calling for this practice to be stopped completely.  Yet the governmental response to the issue has been tepid at best. Its guidelines call for this practice to be used  “cautiously.” Tell that to a fifteen-year-old  who is finishing up his 200th day in total isolation.

John Sutter, a human rights and social change writer for CNN, did a probing story about young offenders and solitary that is worth reading. A strong voice in a debate that shouldn’t even be a debate.

Alternet had a very moving piece on the abuse of solitary confinement in US jails entitled “Why is the US the World Leader in the Utterly Inhumane Practice of Solitary Confinement.”  The video is worth watching and says so much about what is wrong with our criminal justice/prison system.

 

Over the last several months I’ve written a lot about kids locked away in solitary confinement. The experience of solitary is real to me in a small way having spent time on the isolation units with my young students. I’ve tried to describe what the utter bleakness is like: the stripped down environment, the cold atmosphere of  glass, steel and concrete, and the overactive AC systems, the deprivation of not seeing another person for hours, in some cases days at a time.

There are reports and studies documenting what life is like for America’s kids in solitary lock-down. Human Rights Watch  “Growing Up Locked Down” and Alternet “The Unbelievable Inhumanity of Solitary Confinement” are two such reports. Each is worth reading.

More powerful than the words of those reports–and remember, I’m a word man struggling to make the suffering of these kids lives palpable –are the drawings that Solitary Watch recently published showing what the inside of an isolation cell looks like. These are powerful pictures. Looking at them I could feel my gut tighten up, my breath shorten. The tomb-like brutality of the place washed over me. Sounds dramatic I know. But I’m not looking for an affect. The sheer stripped down bleakness of the pictures brought it all back.

And they made me think something I’ve thought over and over: if that’s what it was like for me, what must it have been like for the kids I sat with there. If those are my visceral reactions, what might theirs be.

Looking at those drawings makes me wonder, once again, what are we as a nation trying to accomplish by building places like this and locking children up in them?

I’ve written a lot lately about the use of solitary confinement in the prison system and its effects on young offenders, children really,(“The Harm We Do”). One of the things that occurs to me over and over again is what little resources young people have to endure such punishing isolation.

This came across very powerfully to me when I read a New York Times article,  “Prisoners’ Letters Offer a Window Into Lives Spent Alone in Tiny Cells,”  reporting on the many letters the New York Civil Liberties Union has received from adults being held in solitary confinement. The letters are deeply disturbing and filled with the anguish of people feeling totally abandoned by society.

As I read the article I kept thinking, “If this is what adults feel in solitary, what must it be like for a kid, 14, 15 years old, locked up and locked away from any of the normal signpost of compassion and humanity that define our sense of self?” What do we think we are doing to these young people, what do we think we are accomplishing for society? (I say “we” because I increasingly realize that ultimately we, the people of this country,  are responsible for what happens in our prison systems.)

Annie Sapucaia, a book reviewer for New Books Network with a particular interest in sociology, interviewed me recently. Her questions were pretty insightful and once again left me with the feeling that there are caring people in the world who want to “do the right thing” by all people. Here’s her introduction to the interview.

“It is easy to dismiss juveniles in prison as “bad seeds”, as people with which we have nothing in common, and of which we want only distance.  David Chura, however, did not maintain his distance, and has been working with at-risk kids for other 40 years.  His new book, I Don’t Wish Nobody to Have a Life Like Mine: Tales of Kids in Adult Lockup (Beacon Press, 2010), is a collection of stories from the time he taught kids in a New York County jail.  These narratives paint a picture of children who have been abused, neglected, and chronically disappointed by those in their lives and in the justice and foster system.  Chura exposes a number of issues in the justice system and in society at large  which contribute greatly to the outcome of these kids’ lives, and seeks to inform us that far from simply being “bad”, the gulf between these children and ours are mainly due to circumstances, not to personality or inborn traits.   Chura shares stories that we rarely hear, of a world we barely know, in order to give a voice to those who are often silenced. Take a listen at New Books Network.”

I recently wrote about the “cruel and unusual” punishment of putting young offenders in solitary confinement, forcing them to live in an environment of complete isolation in some cases for months at a time. The reasons for their isolation are myriad: to maintain what corrections calls “safety and security;” to separate the mentally ill  especially if they appear to be disruptive to general population; to “teach them a lesson” (adolescents especially in prison can be oppositional and rebellious); to separate “troublemakers” who  raise issues that perhaps challenge the prison culture.  Whatever the reason, the effects are negative and far-reaching.

Solitary Watch a wonderful and tenacious watchdog of the murky world of solitary confinement, recently posted an article that shows the devastating damage that solitary isolation has on young minds. What consistently comes to my mind is that the damage we do to the young will only come back to hurt society since a damaged young offender will inevitably grow up to be an even more damaged and potentially dangerous adult.

I urge you to check out the article.

I was recently asked to write an opinion piece for Youth Today and am happy to re-post it here, “The Harm We Do: Kids in Solitary Confinement” For those of you who aren’t already familiar with this publication it is an excellent source of information and in-depth reporting on issues confronting at-risk youth. Youth Today is available as an online journal or in print. I personally get the printed version. I’m just a traditionalist that way, but I also find that the visual presentation and layout look great on the full page. Either way the topics covered and the reporting and writing are of the highest quality in any publication I’ve seen in the field–and I see a lot. Check it out Youth Today.

When most Americans hear the familiar constitutional phrase “cruel and unusual punishment” they can tell you what it means, at least to them. Hanging. Flogging. Chopping a hand off. Chain gangs.

Putting juvenile offenders in solitary confinement is high on my list of “cruel and unusual punishment.” What else do you call locking up fifteen, sixteen year olds, some even younger, in total isolation for 24 hours a day, in some cases for months at a time, never leaving their cells? “All an inmate’s needs are met right here,” was the way the warden of the adult county jail where I taught high school students proudly described it as he gave a group of professionals a tour of the new Special Housing Unit (SHU). It was true. Each cell had its own phone, shower, toilet, concrete bed, and adjacent small enclosed rec area. All an inmate’s needs were met, except for the most essential: human contact of any kind.

These conditions are intolerable for anyone and are replicated nationally in our jails. The United Nations Human Rights Council reported that the US has more inmates in solitary confinement than any other democratic nation. But locking up a kid in those conditions, a kid with more energy than a playground can hold; whose body at times practically vibrates with urges that many more advantaged teens struggle to control; whose emotional and intellectual development is at best undernourished, can only be called “cruel and unusual.”

Human Rights Watch agrees. It’s recently released “Against All Odds: Prison Conditions for Youth Offenders Serving Life Without Parole in the United States” documents the overuse of solitary confinement with minors and its devastating effects on them, effects heightened by the prospect of life without parole. The young people interviewed considered isolation a “profoundly difficult ordeal,” leaving them with “thoughts of suicide, feelings of intense loneliness or depression.”

But it’s not just “lifers” in solitary who experience those “profound effects.” I saw it when I visited my jailhouse students who were locked up in “the cage,” as they called it. They were there because corrections deemed them a threat to “safety and security.” In too many cases, however, that “threat” came from their acting-out behaviors due to untreated mental health issues or ADHD. Still others were seen as “pains in the ass” who “just needed to be taught a lesson.”

It didn’t take long for the new SHU to fall apart, the way everything else does in prison. Walls were scuffed and gouged from inmates being dragged in; cell door windows were smeared as guys jammed and angled their faces to see anything, anyone. The only thing shattering that intense sensory deprivation was the sound of inmates shouting to each other, howling through the thick walls, trying to connect with another human, announcing to the world, “I’m still alive.” And when they weren’t screaming, they were sleeping—15, 16 hours a day.

My students deteriorated as well. Once in isolation they abandoned any sense of civilized behavior. Young guys who would come to class shaven and showered, smelling of Old Spice deodorant, in fresh county oranges, now reeked of unwashed bodies; their hair dirty and matted, faces fuzzed; their eyes caked and puffy from sleep. I would bang on the window until they woke up and lifted their heads from under the pillows and blankets they burrowed under against the cold. They’d shuffle over to the door and we’d squat on our own sides of the concrete and glass wall and talk through the meal tray slot. It was then that I’d be hit by their sour, foul breath as though they were slowly decaying from the inside out.

Finally in 2009 the Department of Justice investigated these abuses. The DOJ reported that half of the inmates in the SHU were between 16 and 18, and that the average stay in isolation for juveniles was 365 days. As a result of these “extremely lengthy sentences,” the mental health of these young people worsened significantly, aggravated “by the jail’s failure” to provide routine treatment. Unfortunately, this is far from an isolated case. Abuses of minors in solitary are happening around the country.

I don’t know how many people get the irony involved here, but I do know that the kids I taught did, even though they never “got” irony in class: We lock children up in inhuman conditions in order to teach them how to act human. Unfortunately, as studies have shown, inmates learn a far different lesson. When they leave isolation they are angrier, more distrustful, more cynical about ever getting justice, and more prone to violence. What could be a more “cruel and unusual punishment” then to confirm these young people’s bedrock belief that America as it is now has no place for them other than behind bars?

Originally appeared in Youth Today

Solitary Watch has reported that the American Civil Liberties Union has called on the United Nations to investigate civil liberties violations for US prisoners held in solitary confinement and to put pressure on the US to end this punitive and cruel practice. In the county prison where I worked,  I saw first hand the effects of solitary on inmates who were locked up in total isolation for months at a time, and I described some of those effects on Solitary Watch. Although the stated purpose for the “special housing unit” (SHU) was to contain the most disruptive and dangerous prisoners, the SHU ended up being filled with mentally ill inmates left untreated. Once again the US is out of step with our Western European allies in the humane treatment of those who break the law.

I never expected to learn much about hope during the ten years I taught kids locked up in an adult county prison. After all, jail’s a pretty dead-end place. Turns out I was wrong.

I learned a lot about optimism and resilience from some unlikely teachers—my jailhouse students. There was Ray who told me, “I’ve only lived in the world, free, not locked up somewhere, for a total of 6 years and 4 months,” but who firmly believed that God would put a light at the end of his own dark tunnel; or Dario who despite living in shelters, on the streets, or in jails completed his high school diploma; or Wade who was looking at state prison, yet planning how he’d help his little brother when he got out.

Still, I’m a slow learner. In spite of the Obama optimism, I don’t easily see much hope in our nation. It’s hard to look past the bully culture fostered by Tea Party narcissism and conservative righteousness; by laws that require police to suspect, stop and question, anyone whose skin is darker than theirs or whose name hints of Latino origins; by churches who kick children out of their schools because of their parents’ sexual orientation.

That’s why I was pleased, relieved, and frankly startled when the Supreme Court, an institution which in my opinion hasn’t been this country’s greatest source of hope lately, ruled recently that it was unconstitutional to sentence juveniles who have not committed homicide to life behind bars without the possibility of parole.

Back in November 2009, when I first wrote on this site and elsewhere about the court’s hearing of this case the reasons for overturning this law seemed so simple and obvious that I was embarrassed to be laying them out so carefully: Yes, kids commit crimes, but they also are able to, and do, learn and change.

But it wasn’t so simple and obvious—that is, if I went by the angry and, in several cases, vitriolic reactions I got from some readers. By their way of thinking, once a person, young or old, committed a crime they were exiled from the human race and thus excluded from the decencies and protections we grant each other. It didn’t matter if the children involved committed their crimes when they were only 13 or 14; that they hadn’t killed anyone during that crime. They deserved to be locked up for life, to die in prison. “Cruel and unusual punishment,” to use the 8th Amendment’s bone chilling phrase, was what they deserved.

It was heartening, then, to see the Supreme Court recognize that, indeed, juveniles have “limited moral culpability,” and that this limited culpability was not an issue of choice but rather the product of cognitive development.

Research into the brain’s “executive functioning” shows that young people don’t fully develop responsible decision making skills until sometime in their twenties. Today’s media in exploring the commonplace trend among twenty-somethings still living at home, slow to make their place in the world, often cite this research. But you rarely hear about that research when it comes to troubled young kids, kids who are usually minority, poor, under-educated, and disenfranchised. Nobody wanted to hear about executive functioning when 17 year old Anthony, a student of mine with developmental disabilities and no prior record, was arrested for snatching a purse. The tough-on-crime county DA running for reelection saw to it that Anthony was sentenced to 5 years in state prison. Now the Supreme Court has challenged that thinking, at least in the case of life term sentencing without parole for nonhomicidal crimes.

The Justices’ ruling also brings the United States closer to the global community’s standards of criminal justice. We have stood outside that circle of justice for too long as a nation that locks up 1 out of 100 citizens, that uses torture, and executes people. Justice Kennedy in writing the majority opinion noted that the United States “is the only Nation that imposes life without parole sentences on juvenile nonhomicidial offenders,” a sentencing practice that “is inconsistent with basic principles of decency.”

In lockups across this country, hope usually comes in smaller doses: a letter from the “shorty” you thought had dumped you; a meeting with your Legal Aid lawyer who finally got you a court date after months of waiting; a job working in the kitchen for a buck a day.

The Supreme Court’s message of hope, slight as it might be—the recognition, as Justice Stevens wrote, that “Knowledge accumulates. We learn, sometimes, from our mistakes”—might take a long time to trickle down to the kids that I taught and their peers, if it ever does. But when, and if they get the word, I know they won’t be surprised by the logic behind the decision. I can hear that chorus of bored adolescent boys now, “Yeah, and?”

Sometimes, we adults are the slowest learners of all.