Archive for the ‘Westchester County Jail’ Category

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

This article by Noreen O’Donnel appeared in the Journal News, newspaper for the Lower Hudson River Valley on August 16, 2010

David Chura began teaching in the Westchester County Jail 15 years ago, when the news was full of stories of unrepentant teenagers committing horrendous crimes. “Super-predator” was the term of the moment.

Would all of his students be violent and aggressive, he wondered. Would they see any value in education?

“Then I would meet these kids,” he said.

Now Chura, 62, has written a book about his years in the jail: “I Don’t Wish Nobody to Have a Life Like Mine: Tales of Kids in Adult Lockup.”

“I was struck by the stories of the kids that I worked with,” he said. “Like many people, I had a lot of stereotypes about who these kids were and what they were going to be like and what kind of problems they would present. When I got to know the kids, it was a real eye- opener about the kinds of experiences they had lived through.”

Children of disappointment, he calls one chapter.

Who were they?

There was 15-year-old Warren, born in the jail to a mother whose drinking had, in Chura’s words, short-circuited his body and brain.

There was Jonathan, a 16-year-old still sucking his thumb who watches over the jail’s egg incubator until the chicks hatch. He cares for a lame one everyone calls Cripple.

And there was Ray, taken from his mother when he was five, locked up at night by his aunt and raped when he was 11.

On his 21st birthday, he plotted his life for Chura as if it were a graph, with a succession of foster homes, suicide attempts, psychiatric hospitalizations and drug rehabs. He ends with this in red marker: “PEACE. ONE LOVE!”

The title of the book comes from Ray.

The classroom was a place where the young inmates could be kids, he said. Far from being uninterested in school, they took advantage of it, he said. Many showed talent, if some of it raw.

“As much as their lives were pretty chaotic, they were really interested in making something of themselves,” he said.

Chura, whom the inmates called “Mr. C.,” argues for treating them as the adolescents they really are. He asks people to “take a look at what the juvenile justice system does, specifically what happens when you lock minors up in an adult facility.”

“That’s really the crux of it for me,” he said.

The number of juveniles in prison has risen by 35 percent since the 1990s, according to the U.S. Justice Department. The number housed in adult prison has skyrocketed , up by more than 200 percent.

Last year, the department accused Westchester County of subjecting inmates at the jail to unconstitutional living conditions, including excessive force by correction officers. Among the complaints: failing to provide acceptable medical and mental-health care, especially to juvenile inmates. Last week, neither the U.S. Attorney’s Office nor the Westchester County Jail had any comment about the investigation.

Chura, who has retired and is living in western Massachusetts, said he is not writing specifically about the Westchester County Jail, but about a system.

“If we continue to lock up kids at such an early age without doing any rehabilitation, you’re talking about increased adult population in jails, and that’s just very expensive,” he said.

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I had just finished reading “Safety and Security,” a chapter from my book I Don’t Wish Nobody to Have a Life Like Mine: Tales of Kids in Adult Lockup, at a recent book event. It describes a morning I spent proctoring a state exam for a student who was locked up in solitary confinement at the county jail where I taught high school for ten years.

Each time I read that chapter the horrors of that morning come back to me: the emergency response team dragging in an inmate, struggling, crying, screaming that he couldn’t breathe, that he was dying, couldn’t anybody please help him, until the glass and metal door of his cell slammed shut on his pleas. That morning I knew that I had seen something that no civilian was meant to witness. And I knew, as well, that every man on that block, locked in his own cage of silence, had had a similar story of despair to tell.

After I finished reading the chapter that evening, my listeners sat in stunned silence, caught in the nightmare of solitary confinement. Then, tentatively a hand went up.

“I was married to a man who was in solitary for several years,” a woman in her 60s said. “When I asked him how he made it through, he told me that he practiced walking meditation, and that he got to know, really know, every concrete block in his cell. He said he learned a lot.”

I didn’t doubt her husband’s experience—or her perception of it. Yet I sensed in what she said an attitude I’d heard before from people trying to make sense of this brutal practice. It is an attitude, I suspect, that offers people comfort: solitary confinement as the monk’s cave, as the scholar’s study, as the New Age guru’s retreat; a time for meditation, yoga, reading; self-discovery.

It’s a romantic image—the lone prisoner triumphing over his keeper—that’s been around for awhile and has made its way into the general consciousness. Burt Lancaster in The Birdman of Alcatraz as Robert Stroud serving a life sentence in solitary surrounded by his books and birds. Or Denzil Washington in The Hurricane as Rubin Carter studying his way to personal liberation from his isolation.

Nothing could be further from the truth for the majority of men and women in prisons across the country buried in isolation cells, some for years.

As often as I could I visited my students—some as young as 15—who were locked up in solitary. (Luckily, state education law mandated that an incarcerated high school student must receive some kind of education even in solitary confinement.)

Contrary to that romantic image, the men—young and old—I saw on my escorted walk down the block’s hallway had triumphed over nothing.  “The cage,” as my students called it, reeked of unwashed, long neglected bodies. The walls were scuffed and gouged where shackled inmates writhed and kicked as they were dragged in. The cell door windows were smeared as prisoners jammed their faces at odd angles against the glass, desperate to see anyone, anything, hungry for visual stimulation. If the men weren’t sleeping (and many slept for 15, 16 hours a day, barely waking for meals) they were screeching, howling through the walls, trying to make contact with each other, with another human being, even if those shouts were indecipherable and incomprehensible.

That evening, listening to the woman’s comment, I couldn’t help thinking about those inmates I saw. Few of them, for whatever reasons, had any of her husband’s resources, especially the young men—children really—that I taught whose lives were fractured, some seemingly beyond repair, and whose identities were too fragile to withstand the assault of solitary.

Put in isolation, for behavior the department of corrections deemed dangerous and uncontrollable, a threat to “safety and security”—behavior considered less than human— those individuals were made to live in subhuman conditions in order to learn how to act human. But the only lesson learned is one that most locked up people have known all their lives: There is no end to how cruel we can be to each other; and how easily we are able to justify that cruelty.