Posts Tagged ‘Prisoner Abuse’

The panel, sponsored by Boston College, was titled “Youth in Prison: The Reality of the System”. I was there to share my experiences as a teacher who worked with teenagers, some as young as fifteen, serving time in an adult county jail. I was scheduled to speak after T.J.Parsell who, when he was seventeen, served several years in an adult prison and was raped by inmates a number of times. He survived that horrific time and now as an adult shares his experiences to advocate for changes in the way the criminal justice system treats minors.

As T.J. recounted the sexual assaults he lived through I kept wondering what I could add. His experiences were so shocking, so deplorable that I wondered what more could be said.

However, as I listened, I realized there was a lot I could add. According to the Campaign for Youth Justice, inmates under eighteen make up only one percent of the prison population yet are victims in 21 percent of prison rapes. Although those statistics are high, not all young offenders are subjected to the sexual abuse that T.J. went through and that many other kids continue to endure. Yet all teenagers in adult prison live with an endless series of violations on a daily basis, violations that I could only think to describe as “everyday rapes.” I saw that my contribution to the panel was to be a witness to those everyday degradations, assaults, violations that I learned about over the ten years that I taught in prison.

There was the everyday rape of random body searches—on the block, coming back from court, before seeing family on a visit. As Marcus, a seventeen year old who never shied away from speaking his mind, put it, “Being searched by po-lice makes you feel dirty. They make you strip down, bend over, and…you know. They call it cavity search. I call it rape.”

My students lived with the everyday violation of never having any privacy when they showered, used the toilet, “went to New York” (one of their many jailhouse slang phrases for masturbating). All teenagers, whoever and wherever they are, work hard to hide their vulnerabilities especially when it comes to their bodies. In prison those vulnerabilities are even more pronounced and so covered up by tough guy bravado because these boys know that their bodies—along with so much more—are no longer their own. As they put it, that they were “state’s property.”

There was the everyday abuse of having their cells sacked by the emergency response team (ERT) on one of their random searches. I understood the need for such surprise searches. Even my students did, although they were loath to admit it. But none of us understood why a team of men in SWAT uniforms had to scream at you, throw you out of your bed, flip your mattress onto the floor, toss around the few clothes you had, then dump in a trash barrel family photos, letters, even school books that you never saw again, only to be threatened as the ERT left your cell, “We’ll get you next time.”

And “next time” might mean the everyday assault of being thrown into solitary confinement because you finally couldn’t hold in your rage anymore at such arbitrary, senseless humiliation and started to mouth off the way only angry, hurt teenage boys can. There, in total isolation, was the endless everyday rape of losing contact with humanity until you lost contact with your own humanity and found yourself participating in your own everyday rape—not showering or brushing your teeth for weeks; sleeping twelve, fifteen hours a day; and when you were awake, screaming, shouting, howling just to let the world—and yourself—know that you’re still there (sort of), doing anything to fight off that final everyday rape of extinction, of disappearing.

Even if a kid can hold it all in, follow the rules, keep his head down, there was the everyday indignity of eating food that poisoned a growing body; of living in an overcrowded, noisy and smelly block, with the constant threat of violence, intimidation and extortion; of being forced to pay extortionist prices for food sold in the prison commissary; of not getting decent health care, or any health care at all, because the gold standard was to save the county money.

The “reality of the system” is a brutal one. The Federal government has finally acknowledged that young offenders must be protected from prison sexual violence. The “Youthful Inmate Standard” regulations established by the Prison Rape Elimination Act require all prisons, jails, lock ups, and detention facilities to provide “sight and sound separation between youth and adults while restricting the use of solitary confinement and isolation practices.”

But these regulations are only a first step in solving how young people are treated in the criminal justice system. If we really want to protect them from the full assault of prison culture—the everyday rapes that have devastating effects long into adulthood—then we must get these children out of the penal system altogether, a system that was never intended to handle young offenders, and place them in environments that are designed to rebuild and to create new lives.

Originally appeared on Juvenile Justice Information Exchange

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.

It’s an optimistic headline: “Prison Rape: Obama’s Program to Stop It”. It leads into a comprehensive New York Review of Books article on three recently released Federal government publications.  Two of these documents examine sexual abuse in the nation’s detention centers while the other outlines the Department of Justice’s regulations for eliminating prison rape. All three aim to address the appalling number of people—young and old, female and male, citizen and those awaiting deportation— who  routinely suffer sexual violence while in lockup, an estimated 209,000 plus every year according to the Justice Department.

So where’s the optimism? The guidelines established by the Obama administration are—on paper, at least—good ones. As the reviewers David Kaiser and Lovisa Stannow (both staunch advocates for victims of prison sexual assault) note, the new recommendations address pivotal issues: how detention centers are staffed, how those staffs are trained in sexual abuse issues, and how inmates are supervised. Equally important is how offenders are evaluated for their potential as either sexual prey or predator. This provision is crucial in protecting young offenders, especially LGBT youth who are in greater danger of sexual harassment and abuse by peers and adult inmates. Once this information is obtained housing can be assigned based on vulnerability, which in the case of minors means not being housed with adults. There are also new standards on how prisoners can report sexual assault and on how that information is handled and investigated by staff. Kaiser and Stannow write that if these standards are successful—“and we believe they will be”—then the incidences of prison rape will be reduced dramatically.

But I can’t share their optimism. I wish I could. My skepticism stems from the way in which these regulations are to be enforced.  Enforcement will be the responsibility of the state departments of corrections and the correctional staff in charge of prisons and jails.

Anyone who has worked in a detention facility knows the power of frontline staff to sabotage whatever standards or procedures are put in place. In my ten years working as a high school teacher in a county prison I’ve watched this culture of obstruction play out as many correctional staff subvert—sometimes blatantly, most times covertly—everything from innovative grant-funded projects designed to reduce recidivism in young offenders to simple routines such as making sure all inmates daily attend their assigned programs, all measures that would provide true “safety and security” for staff as well as inmates and that would further the stated goal of incarceration: rehabilitation.

What’s behind this apparently illogical obstruction? It is the same dynamic that informs so much of what goes on in any detention system; it is certainly the dynamic that is behind all prison sexual violence: the power grab. All lockups whether they be for adults, minors or immigrants awaiting deportation are run on a hierarchy of power: Who’s got it, who wants it and what you’ll do to get it. Within this structure there is the inevitable scramble for power and position in an environment where everyone feels impotent.

People who are locked up live every day of their incarceration with this lack of control (and for so many of them, every day of their lives) and so understandably make the power grab. This is especially true for young offenders who are the most vulnerable in this predatory world. Ironically it is just as pronounced with correctional staff. Over my years in the prison system I’ve often heard officers openly complain that the work they do is just as dangerous, if not more so than other law enforcement officers, yet they feel they are underpaid and not respected as professionals by their peers and society in general. So what better way to “stick it” to the system, to “show” wardens, county executives, the Feds, civilians, and certainly inmates that COs are the ones who make or break things in prison than by subverting regulations, routines, and structures.

The Obama guidelines are strong in addressing the delicate and fraught issue of sexual violence. This is especially true when it comes to the victimization of young people and the sexually vulnerable. Is it wise then to leave their implementation in the hands of the people who are themselves part of the problem both in terms of upholding standards and in terms of actually being sexual assailants themselves? (Reports show that half of all sexual abuse is committed by correctional staff.)

Kaiser and Stannow are confident that enforcement of these regulations “will make American detention facilities better run, more humane, and safer places in general.” It is a hopeful vision. But if we want detention centers that are humane and safe we have to go beyond a fresh set of regulations. We need to make fundamental changes in the prison system: confront the perverted power structure—and struggle—that dominates these institutions and that leads to sexual violence and replace it with a form of justice that truly values rehabilitation and that restores dignity and respect to victim, inmate and correctional staff. Radical steps? Yes. Do we have a choice? The numbers say we don’t—because each incident of prison rape radically changes a person’s life forever.

Originally posted on Juvenile Justice Information Exchange

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.

Arizona’s legislature recently passed a law charging prison visitors a onetime $25 fee as a way to help close the state’s $1.6 billion budget deficit. Middle Ground Prison Reform, a prison advocacy group, challenged the law in court as a discriminatory tax, but a county judge upheld its constitutionality.

Fees like that, slapped on prisoners and their families, couldn’t be more counterintuitive. But then again, so many of our criminal justice policies are just that. Since it is mostly the poor, the desperately poor who fill US prisons, the $25 fee is one more economic hardship offenders’ families have to struggle with. It becomes another bill they have to scramble to pay—that is if they can.

These kinds of charges (and Arizona isn’t the only jurisdiction trying to shift the cost of incarceration to the poor) have even graver consequences. When a family can’t pay the fee their contact with their loved one is limited, essentially cutting an offender off from the only supports he or she has in the outside world.

Psychologists have long known how central it is for an individual to have nurturing people in his or her life in order to develop emotionally, psychologically and socially. This need for a supportive network is even more essential when we talk about the young people who are locked away from family and loved ones in our nation’s prisons and detention centers.

As anyone who has worked with kids in the penal system knows on a gut level, it is crucial to have families and other supportive community members involved in young offenders’ lives as they serve their time. Now, that commonsense intuition has been given empirical strength by studies done by such juvenile justice groups as the Vera Institute of Justice which have demonstrated that maintaining young people’s connection to families is a major factor in helping kids stay out of jail once they are released.

But it’s easy to question whether these families are really such a positive influence. After all, if they were doing such a great job what are their kids doing in jail?

It’s an easy assumption to make until you see some of those family members in the prison visiting room with their sons and daughters. I got to do that at least twice a year when the jailhouse high school where I taught for ten years in a county adult facility had its open house for families and caregivers.

The place was packed with mothers, fathers, grandmothers, grandfathers, aunts, uncles, brothers and sisters, or the people who stepped into those roles when circumstances—AIDS, death, addiction, incarceration, abandonment, all the things that ravage the lives of the poor and disenfranchised—demanded it. It wasn’t easy for many of them to get there. Meals had to be missed. Second jobs skipped. Long cross-county bus rides with tickets to pay for, transfers to be negotiated, at night, often in bad weather. The grandmother of one of my students, Leon, a skinny 15 year old who was finally making progress in class, had to travel over an hour on three buses to get there. It was a trip I knew she faithfully made twice a week to see her grandson. “I wouldn’t miss a visit with my boy for anything,” she told me, reaching over and giving Leon’s hair a playful tug. “But now you tell, Mr. Chura, how’s he doin in class?” That set Leon squirming.

It was a conversation I had over and over during those family visits. Miguel’s uncle who gave me his phone number and urged me to call him if Miguel wasn’t in school. Luis’ mother, frail and  in a wheelchair, holding her son’s hand, telling me how when Luis got out of jail she was moving her whole family out of state to get away from the gangs that ran wild in the streets. “I just want my boys to be safe,” she said, her English halting but her fear and determination palpable.

It was hard to hear in the visiting room sometimes with people chattering in several different languages, children running around, little brothers squealing when their big brother in his funny orange jump suit picked them up, mothers crying, locked-up sons trying to explain, promise, console. It was hard to hear but it was easy to know what was going on: Families—fragile, fragmented, strained, mending—were desperately trying to stay a family.

Many of those visitors would be willing to admit that they hadn’t done such a good job at maintaining the family bond, but that they did the best they could given the problems they had to face. Like Luis’ mother the determination was there but the resources weren’t. If we as a nation are serious about reducing crime (and not just by increased incarceration) it is important that we not put more obstacles in the way of young inmates’ families but rather that we give them the opportunities and resources to develop and sustain those crucial connections. It’s an investment that’s worth losing 25 bucks over.

Originally appeared on Juvenile Justice Information Exchange

Sex and power — forces rampant in our prison system, thwarted and twisted by the jail culture. Lock up large numbers of the same gender and the frustrated sexual energy is palpable. Likewise, in jail everyone — wardens, correctional officers, inmates — wants power, fights for it, manipulates for it, in a place where everyone is made to feel impotent. The locked up teenagers I taught over a ten year period in an adult county facility and about whom I write in I Don’t Wish Nobody to Have a Life Like Mine: Tales of Kids in Adult Lockup, had a great image for that lack of power: crabs in a bucket, stepping over each other, pulling down the ones closest to the top, so nobody wins.

Sex and power, as everyone knows, are the ingredients of rape. Consequently, the prison rape numbers are high. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics 88,500 incarcerated adults were sexually abused — by correctional staff or other inmates — in 2009. This number doesn’t include the kids who have been sexually victimized while locked up, an even higher percentage.

Disturbing numbers made even more disturbing by the fact that seven years ago the George W. Bush congress (surprisingly) passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act.

It’s a good bill that raised the alarm regarding widespread prison sexual assaults. It also established the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission to investigate and make recommendations on how best to stop prisoner sexual abuse. In June 2009 the Commission finally released its report setting out certain reforms. However, the Obama administration has yet to adopt those findings.

The recommendations are thorough, straightforward and sensible. Among them, instituting zero tolerance policies of all sexual abuse. Training staff to identify potential sexual assault situations. Teaching inmates their right to report sexual harassment without reprisals. Screening new inmates for their risk of being sexually abused or abusive.

When I read what the Commission suggested I wondered why prisons haven’t already been taking these commonsensical, low cost measures which would have spared thousands of men and women pain and suffering. And I wondered what this failure said about our criminal justice system’s attitude — and our society’s attitude — towards prison rape, and prisoners in general?

But if we really want to get at the causes of prison sexual assaults we have to dig deeper than a commissioned report.

The system is the problem. Our jails are run on a culture of violence. Walk into a jail and you’ll know that violence. Every day I worked in the county jail I was hit by it. The smells of men packed into overcrowded dorms; of exposed toilets; of rancid food. The constant din of the PA system; of the blaring television; of officers and inmates shouting over it all. The sight of a handcuffed inmate being dragged down the hall to the Special Housing Unit by the black-clad emergency response team. Just another day in the county lockup.

A more subtle message of this culture of violence is the dehumanization of the body. Sounds pretty philosophical, but in jail it translates real easy: Your body isn’t yours. You dress, undress, shower, shit under somebody’s eye, electronic or otherwise. You can be stripped down and exposed to cameras; you can be prodded and explored — “cavity searched” — all at corrections’ command. My jailhouse students knew this. During one of corrections’ clampdowns on jailhouse tattoos, one of the kids, a tattoo artist, commented, “The way police see it, when we do our shit, we’re defacing county property.” When human beings are treated as commodities, sexual assault becomes inevitable; and this inevitability fits the publics’ perception: Prison rape happens. (Yet, can you imagine the outbreak if these attacks took place in any other public care institution?)

Prison rape can only be diminished when we change the culture of violence within our jails. It’s not impossible. It is being done in some prisons across the country where administrators such as Sunny Schwartz in the San Francisco county jails have had the courage and vision to implement programs in restorative justice and violence reduction programs, for example. These approaches, when supported by administrators and uniformed staff, have reduced sexual violence by demanding full accountability from inmates and correctional staff alike while ensuring that each person is valued and respected.

In March, Attorney General Holder told a congressional committee that addressing prison rape “…is something that I think needs to be done, not tomorrow, but yesterday.” Today is “yesterday.” The victims of prison rape can’t wait for another “yesterday.”

Originally posted on Huffington Post

It costs a lot to lock people up (by some estimates $32 billion annually.) You have to house them, feed them, give them basic medical care.

It costs a lot, even if you cut corners. Overpack a dorm or double-bunk (as dangerous as that practice is.) Serve cheap food—unrecognizable, processed meats; overripe, almost rotted fruit; white bread that wads up to the touch. Save on health care by not giving any. In the county jail where I taught high school for ten years I’d seen young guys with cheeks ballooned out from abscessed molars told to wait two weeks for the next dentist visit; or students go without their essential medications because they supposedly filled out the wrong forms which would eventually get “lost” anyway in the great paper-shedder of jailhouse bureaucracy. One male warden on the women’s unit even decided to save money by rationing toilet paper and tampons.

Today, some states such as Virginia, Utah, Missouri, Arizona, New York, New Jersey and Iowa have a new, more direct approach: charge locked up men and women fees for room and board.

At first it sounds like just one more plank in the “get tough on crime” platform. But as many professional and advocacy groups have pointed out, it’s not the prisoners who pay those fees but their families, families who for the most part are poor and disenfranchised themselves, already shouldering the burden of our criminal justice policies.

But even if inmates don’t directly pay for their room and board (this policy has been successfully challenged through the courts in several states), inmates do pay in other ways.

Take food for example. If you want to eat “real food” (as my locked up students called it) you have to buy through the prison commissary service. It’s the “company store” and so you pay through the nose.

In the county jail where I was families weren’t allowed to bring food in for their loved ones. There were security reasons for this. Occasionally bread alone wasn’t the only thing that got through those prison gates when packages were left off. For some inmates drugs were more sustaining than food; and a few family members felt compelled to smuggle them in, buried in a resealed box of raisin bran, say, or layered between slices of bread. To address this abuse (and just as likely to save the staff hours of time checking each package that came in) the department of corrections contracted with a private commissary service.

Commissary food wasn’t any healthier than what inmates got at chow. (In jail there’s no breakfast, lunch or dinner, but chow, and all the connotations of that word.) It was loaded with fat, salt, and sugar. Any nutrition was processed out. It was junk food. 7-Eleven food. Bodega food. Chips, honey buns, beef jerky, ramen soups, candy bars.

Each week the private food service (they served over 600 jails nationally) gave out its commissary list. My students, like little boys making their Christmas list, checked off what they wanted, that is if they were lucky enough to have someone to put “money on their books” to pay for their purchases.

I got hold of that commissary list once and was shocked by the prices. Just like the convenience store buried in the inner city, the prices were grossly inflated—even more so. A small jar of basic peanut butter was over $5; a small Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup over $2. Paying top price for food, inmates were lining the pockets of the private food service.

And in a grotesque triumph of consumerism, the company’s website offered what it called the “I Care Gift Services” which “allowed family and friends to send gifts for any occasion.” For a hefty price, an inmate could receive a gift bag with names like Spring Snack; Meal Deal; Chocolate Lovers Pack; or Meaty Big and Beefy, collections of “goodies” that cost double the price of any store.

(The irony of the “I Care” service is its assumption that inmates’ families have access not only to computers, but to credit cards as well, commodities in short supply in the poorest neighborhoods where the majority of the US inmate population comes from.)

Whatever scheme society thinks up to make money from, or cover the cost of its penal system, our broken but burgeoning prison system puts a heavy price on all of Americans. We all pay in ways we have yet to realize.


“Monster Factory” is a slang phrase for a prison, one that fits the popular view of a jail: a place where ruthless thugs are kept locked up by sadistic guards. These stock images surround us—in movies, television shows, music lyrics, and newspaper stories.

One such “monster factory” recently hit the media when the Department of Justice released a 42 page report accusing New York State’s Westchester County jail of violating prisoners’ civil rights. As Preet Bharara, the United States attorney for the Southern District of New York, bluntly stated the jail had ‘utterly failed’ to protect inmates and to provide humane conditions. (New York Times)

Having worked at Westchester County jail for ten years teaching locked up teenagers who were either awaiting trial or serving time, I found that report painful to read. It catalogs abuses in which correctional staff used excessive force on prisoners such as administering pepper spray to already subdued inmates at point-blank range in crowd control doses; slamming a female inmate’s head into a wall; dragging another inmate along the floor by his handcuffed wrists. The Department of Justice also cites the county jail for using “threatening and aggressive verbal strategies” regardless of an inmate’s “mental impairments” which only make situations more volatile.

While these are horrible things, when I first heard about the investigation I felt a sense of elation. Finally, I thought, the jail is being held accountable for some of the abuses I and my colleagues had long been aware of.  Maybe now kids won’t be subjected to needless physical force and intimidation. Maybe now they won’t be thrown in to disciplinary isolation for long stretches of time, where the conditions seriously threaten their mental health. And maybe now these locked up teens will get decent medical and mental-health care.

Ultimately, though, I felt sad and disheartened by that report. Westchester County jail isn’t a “monster factory.”  Most buildings have been modernized. Efforts are being made to set up job training programs, add more educational opportunities, and provide pre-release counseling and planning services. I found myself thinking, “If these kinds of abuses can happen at the Westchester jail, in a county with all the money, education and sophistication of a New York City metropolitan suburb, what kinds of things are happening in jails in other parts of the country with far fewer resources.”

Then it hit me. Westchester jail is a “monster factory” because every jail is a “monster factory.” I had been missing the irony of the phrase. A factory is a place where things are made. And indeed, as the Department of Justice report showed, jail conditions can make monsters out of people.

The Westchester jail’s emergency response team came in for some particularly hard criticism in the report. ERT, an elite group with special uniforms and SWAT gear, carries a certain cache in the prison. Made up of officers who volunteer to serve on a rotational basis, the squad is sent in to break up fights. It’s a demanding job that requires not only brawn but also a cool head and iron-fisted restraint.

I worked with a number of COs both in the classroom and on the blocks who volunteered for the team. They were decent men and women who on a day-to-day basis seemed to care about the kids—even the worst troublemakers—we both worked with. But something happened to them when they put on that all-black uniform to do their ERT stint. Later, when their rotation was over and they returned to their usual posts, they would talk unselfconsciously about the brutality of what they had done.

Listening to them talk—or more often, overhearing them as they joked about it with their peers—I was struck by how easily many of them had shed the humanity, commonsense and good judgment they had shown working with my students. Hidden behind body shields and reflective visors, the men and women on ERT became faceless, rage-filled forces accountable to no one, not even themselves.

There’s a lot of suffering in those 42 pages. It is a roll call of abuses not only of the kept but of their keepers, both victims of a culture of threat and violence. It is an indictment of how this country runs its jails and of their damaging affects on the people who must survive in them. But more importantly, it is a cautionary tale, its lesson as old as history: that all human beings, good, ordinary people are capable of the greatest atrocities.