Archive for the ‘Prison Conditions’ Category

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.

https://i2.wp.com/solitarywatch.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/adx-florence-7.jpg

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.

 

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

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?

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