Posts Tagged ‘Prison Conditions’

Most of us know at least a few young teens—15, 16, 17 year olds. A son or daughter.  A niece or nephew.  A neighbor or a friend’s grandchild. We see them around, waiting for the school bus, surfing the sidewalk on a skate board, hanging out at the mall. Despite what they insist, teens are only on the cusp of adulthood, and most of us will do whatever we can to help them make it in the world.

Until, that is, one of those youths gets arrested. Then all that good will disappears. At least that’s the case in over half the states which have yet to change their laws prosecuting young teenagers (under the age of 18) as adults and, if convicted, sending them to adult correctional facilities.  Suddenly that young person becomes an exile to all the protections and decencies that communities work hard to provide their children, and she or he enters a world that is blind to the needs and vulnerabilities of every developing adolescent. (This disenfranchisement is made starkly clear by the fact that in some states the parents of those teens are not notified when their children are arrested.)There is nothing nice about a kid in an adult prison or jail—nothing any of us would wish on the young teens that we know.

There are lots of numbers to tell us why these laws are wrong. As the Campaign for Youth Justice states in the conclusion of its report on state-by-state juvenile justice reform, about 250,000 juvenile offenders are tried in adult courts annually and nearly 100,000 youths are placed in adult jails and prisons each year. Yet, as Jessica Sandoval, deputy director of CFYJ, told the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, 95 percent of minors tried in adult courts nationwide are non-violent offenders, a fact that much of the public is not aware of.

Even more shocking, CFYJ reports in its “Key Facts: Youth in the Justice System” that young people housed in adult jails are 36 times more likely to commit suicide than those housed in juvenile detention facilities. Likewise inmates under eighteen make up only one percent of the prison population yet are victims in 21 percent of prison rapes. These grim statistics alone should have all caring adults voicing support for the efforts of child advocacy groups working to amend the laws in the remaining states that treat minors as adults in the criminal justice system.

But even if kids serving time in an adult facility somehow manage to keep themselves physically and sexually safe, the world of adult prison will still harm and harden them. While teaching high school students locked up in an adult correctional facility I saw what prison culture does to teenagers. The constant threat of violence and intimidation; the noise, foul smells and unhealthy food; the chaos and overcrowding; the isolation from family and positive role models; the lack of mental health services. All these factors create an environment that can, and does damage the sturdiest of adults.  What kind of harm, then, do those conditions have on a young person still developing physically, emotionally, cognitively, psychologically, and spiritually?

But shouldn’t these kids be held responsible for breaking the law? Yes. That is exactly why those who support changing these laws want to keep younger teens in the juvenile justice system. The adult prison system, the way it is now structured, is more about retribution than rehabilitation. The juvenile system, on the other hand, is designed to help children change behavior and provides them with vital services such as school and substance abuse treatment which support that change.  When we lock up minors in adult prisons the inevitable focus of incarceration becomes that of survival and of bitter resentment and retaliation for mistreatment by the criminal justice system. The research supports that conclusion. Kids handled in the adult system are 34 percent more likely to reoffend and their behavior to more quickly escalate into violence than those young people who remain in the juvenile system.

Think of all the teenagers you know or see around you. What wouldn’t you do to help them, to point them in the right direction, to shield them from harm? Think of all the benefits we heap on our children, the advantages we say they all should, must have. Why does all that disappear when a kid makes a mistake and gets arrested? Why suddenly are they any less deserving of our personal and national compassion? The least any of us can do is to support those advocacy groups working for juvenile justice reform and to urge legislators to support laws that save young offenders from growing up in adult prisons.

Originally appeared on Juvenile Justice Information Exchange

I’ve written a lot about solitary confinement and the terrible damage it does to anyone–but especially young people who are still physically, intellectually, psychologically unformed, vulnerable–children. I’ve seen kids in solitary lock-up; in a very small way I’ve experienced the sensory deprivation that they experience 24 hours a day, and witnessed what that deprivation does to them. There have been calls, pleas from all kinds of organizations both nationally and internationally, for the US to end the practice of putting kids in isolation. To no avail. Why? I can’t help asking. Why?

Solitary Watch is our watchdog site that won’t let us forget what goes on in these rooms of isolation. They recently had a graphic that brought back to me the times I’ve been able to visit young people in solitary. I share that graphic.

This is what we are talking about when we talk about “solitary confinement.” Imagine yourself in that room, 24 hours a day, month after month. Now, imagine you are 16 years old.

http://solitarywatch.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/adx-florence-7.jpg

I’m happy to share the following post by Griselda Cruz. Griselda is a seventeen-year-old high school student in Washington Heights who is studying health careers and sciences. She is also an intern at the New York Center for Juvenile Justice. Griselda says some very generous things about I Don’t Wish Nobody to Have a Life like Mine: Tales of Kids in Adult Lockup. Although it’s always nice to share those kinds of comments, I wanted to repost her review of the book because I was struck by the insights she has into these locked up young people and by her compassion for the lives they are forced to live. I’ve seen this reaction before in other young people who have read the book. The stories seem more real to them in ways that may not be so for older readers. In one way or another, young readers know firsthand—as friends, friends of friends, brothers, sisters, classmates—the kind of kids I write about. And because of that familiarity they have a greater understanding of our youth culture. You can check out more of Griselda’s writings on her blog at the New York Juvenile Justice Initiative website.

A Story that Caught My Eye by Griselda Cruz

Lately I’ve been reading a book that Yuval, my supervisor at the New York Center for Juvenile Justice, recommended to me. It’s called I Don’t Wish Nobody to Have a Life like Mine: Tales of Kids in Adult Lockup by David Chura. The book is told through the eyes of David Chura, a high school teacher at an adult facility in Westchester County. Everything is exampled in details; kids come up to him sharing personal stories, real life events that you can’t even imagine. From young ages these kids have been struggling, abandoned, neglected by their drug abusive families. These are really tragic stories. They make you wish that these kids’ pasts could have been different, then they wouldn’t be where they are at now, facing serious time.

Like this young man named Ray: It was his 21st birthday and he really didn’t seem too happy. He tells us about how his mother was a drug abuser and that was what caused him to be taken away from her at 5. His father was no longer in the picture. He was in state prison. So Ray moved from home to home or lived in the streets. And to make matters worse he was raped at the age of eleven by a nineteen year old male. After that the suicide attempts began and he felt everybody thought he was a nobody because he didn’t have a family.

But one day his father came home and Ray lived with him for some time. With his father being around, his uncles, aunts, and cousins started to accept him again.  It seemed like he suddenly had a family. But he knew deep inside it was only like that while his father was there. Then his father disappeared again. He was allowed to live with his Aunt Sally for some time, but he thinks it’s only because his father left her money. The aunt would lock him up at night with a bucket to use for going to the bathroom and a pitcher of water to drink. Wow, his own family! Soon Ray was back where he started—in the streets. One day he thought things would turn around when this drug dealer took him in and treated him like his own family. But again that came to an end too. He got into some trouble that caused him to be facing time in jail.

None of these things would have happened if Ray had had a good early childhood. It’s like from a young age he was cursed to have a terrible future. But Ray also said that he blames nobody but himself. It takes a mature person to say that and really mean it! There are so many other powerful stories in this book. I’m half way through and I recommend this book to a lot of my peers because they think they have it hard, when others have had it worse!

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.)

Once again Solitary Watch has posted another very powerful and disturbing piece, this one about an aging and dying population in prison.

Although I more frequently write about the fate of young offenders locked up in our nation’s jail, I was deeply moved by the article and wanted to call attention to it. Lately I’ve been more and more aware that the fate of all the children and young people that the criminal justice system consigns to living behind bars will, if changes are not made in how we treat juvenile offenders, lead to the same fate facing the men and women talked about in this article, “The Other Death Sentence.”

In my own experience teaching in a county prison I would see old men–stooped, hollowed out  by disease and hard living, some shuffling along barely able to walk, some using aluminum walkers–and wonder, “What did you do to get yourself in here?” My incredulity was often shared by others. I’d overhear correctional officers and other inmates greeting these old men respectfully as “papi,” or “pops,” commenting to them that they should be home with their grandchildren. There was never any contempt in those remarks,  just real sadness and pity at these men’s lives.  Even the kids I taught would talk about how they needed to get their lives together so they didn’t end up like those “old timers.”

So as Americans insist on  “tough” criminal laws and harsher sentences as a solution to our crime problems,  our prisons will continue to fill up with men and women, growing old, getting sick and dying. Even if one isn’t moved by humanitarian concerns for this population, the economic ramifications should be bleak enough to make us all stop and reexamine the best way to prevent crime.

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

I didn’t expect my talk to a class of criminal justice majors at a local community college to be any different from the other workshops, presentations and classes I’d done. The students had read my book for class. I figured I’d talk about the book, about my 10 years teaching high school kids locked up in an adult county jail, and about juvenile justice issues in general. The usual topics. But when I asked the students to go around and say what area of criminal justice they wanted to pursue, I knew this would be a different kind of talk.

Most wanted to be police or correctional officers; a few mentioned probation. I wasn’t surprised then, when several students commented and questioned me on what they felt was my negative portrayal of the prison system and the people who work in it.

Anyone who has been in corrections probably wouldn’t deny the things that I wrote about: how “the system” is toxic both physically—the overcrowding, the noise, the smell, the potential for violence, and morally—the lack of respect, the constant suspicion, the need to be “tough.” Most correctional people would agree that these conditions have a harmful impact on their professional performance and their personal lives. Over my years in lockup, more than one CO ruefully commented to me, “Sometimes I feel like I’m the one doing time.” What they didn’t like was that I said these things publicly:  I was the worst kind of jail scum—a rat.

However, there was a subtext to what I wrote that I suspected the students (and other correctional professionals) might have missed. As I explained in my book, and to the students that day, jail is defined by a hierarchy of power. Who’s got it, who wants it, and what they’ll do to get it. It is a culture based on “us” and “them.” I wrote about how, when I first came to teach at the jail, I had my own version of this hierarchy: the “bad guys” were the correctional staff, the ones with the keys, and the “good guys” were the inmates, the ones who were oppressed, locked up. A pivotal element in my personal prison journey was to recognize how I had been taken in like everyone else by this hierarchy.  Realizing that, I worked to shake off my stereotypes, meeting each person—inmate and staff alike—as an individual no matter where they fit into the pecking order.

I hit pay dirt. Stereotyping was a concept the students had studied in class, and given their future careers, it was an essential one to understand. As I talked about my evolution their own concerns slowly came out about how quickly their stereotypes of inmates kicked in, seeing them all as thugs, predators, as “bad,” getting what they deserved.

And then their worries started to come out. If you go beyond the media stereotypes of criminals then what are you left with? How do you keep your humanity, your openness, yet not get taken advantage of by inmates, eaten up by “the system.”

“What I want to know is how you didn’t get discouraged by the whole thing and just quit?” Jake was sitting in the front row, baggy shorts, sneakers, and backwards ball cap. With his book opened, eager and interested, he’d been asking tough questions. I should’ve known that he’d get to the heart of the matter. “I mean, what with inmate recidivism and the conditions in the prison, what about hope?”

I’m not sure the students bought the “long view” I presented. I wouldn’t have at their age. It sounded too simplistic, downright hokey. But I gave it anyway. Although I saw young kids return to jail time after time, and watched officers and inmates bowed by prison’s oppressive conditions, I never gave up hope because I had a bone-deep belief that no effort to be fair, to be respectful, to be decent in the face of all “the system’s” negativity would be wasted. Early in my jail time I made the decision not to tally my efforts with the results. I’d let others keep score. I just held fast to the belief that small change would happen sometime, somewhere, and that that’s all it takes to turn things around.

At the end of class I’m pretty sure I left the students with more questions than answers. It’s not something I like to do. Maybe it’s a teacher thing. I know Jake wasn’t satisfied. He told me so, quite respectfully, when he came up to have me sign his book.

But looking back at that morning I feel now that Jake’s “What about hope?” was a good question for the class to carry into their challenging futures as correctional professionals—and as people. Too many of us forget, in our professional and personal lives, that there will always be more questions than answers in whatever we do. Maybe the only way to keep hope alive in our jobs and our lives is to keep asking those tough questions and hope we don’t come up with answers.

Originally appeared on Beacon Broadside

It was like a giant switchboard, the kind you see in 30s and 40s movies, a bevy of operators plugging in a crisscross of wires, taking calls, making connections, a cacophony of chatter.

That image came to me recently as I walked into the lobby of the MassMutual Center in Springfield, MA. The only difference was that the conversations filling the hall were about the same thing: girls and young women in the juvenile justice system.

We were there—teachers, social workers, lawyers, mentors, youth workers, college students and professors—for the Through Her Eyes conference sponsored by the Center for Human Development, a regional social services agency. This annual gathering, now in its seventh year, came about when a number of professionals expressed concern over the increased number of at-risk young females in “the system,” and the need for “best practices” to help this growing population. The Center for Human Development stepped up to address their concerns with the first Through Her Eyes conference in 2004.

This increase isn’t just a regional issue, however. It is a nationwide trend. According to the Institute on Women & Criminal Justice the number of women in prison has grown 832% in the past three decades. (The male population grew 416% during the same period.) Of this population African American girls and young women are the fastest growing group. The Department of Justice reports that black females are 2.5 times more likely to be arrested than Hispanics and 4.5 times more likely than whites.

But numbers don’t tell the whole story. They don’t tell what it’s like to be abandoned by your family, the child welfare system, your school and community; to be physically and sexually abused; to grow up in poverty and neglect; to have your life controlled by drugs, alcohol and sex.

The conference participants, though, had firsthand experience of what life was like behind the data. They had sat with these young women in emergency rooms and clinics, stood with them before the judge, listened with them as the school principal refused to give a girl one more chance. That day at the MassMutual Center they were there to share what they had seen Through Her Eyes and to learn other ways to help these vulnerable, much neglected and almost invisible young people.

As a teacher in an adult county prison I taught high school English on the female unit several days a week. Tell people you teach locked-up girls and you can see all the images they’ve ever heard of or seen in B-grade women-in-prison movies flash across their faces: violent, tough, sadistic, sinister. I’m not sure people believe me when I tell them that none of those stereotypes really fit. Not that my students, some as young as 15, didn’t don one of those masks if they had to. After all, jail is jail and you have to survive. But in the brutal hierarchy of prejudice incarcerated girls and women are on the bottom rung. Society demonizes them as irredeemable while the prison system infantilizes and insults them. (The Warden—a white, middle-aged man—for the female unit where I taught  rationed toilet paper and tampons in order to save money.)

But when these girls came to school they were what they most wanted to be—teenagers living a “normal life.” It was a struggle since none had ever had a normal life. Not Heather who after her mother died of AIDS got hooked on crack at 12 years old and took to prostitution to support her habit. Nor Ayesha whose mother refused to name her, leaving the hospital to fill in her birth certificate, “No Name.” As Ayesha was handed down from foster home to group home to detention center she would give herself a different name. “That way I get to feel like a new person each time.” And certainly not Eppy, unless a normal life means being physically and sexually abused first by her brother, then by her uncle, and finally her boyfriend. Until in desperation and self-defense she stabbed the boyfriend with a screwdriver.

Each of us had stories like that to share during the conference. As the day wound down another image, a phrase really, came to my mind, “Only connect.” It was from E.M. Forster’s 1910 novel, Howards End. “Only connect…and human love will be seen at its height.” It was as old fashioned perhaps as that switchboard image, and maybe only an old English teacher like me would think of it. But for me it summed up the focus of the conference day and the purpose of the work so many professionals like us did across the country: to give the girls and young women lost in the juvenile justice system what we all want and need—a connection to a better life and a share of human love at its height.

Originally appeared on Juvenile Justice Information Exchange