Posts Tagged ‘Prison Conditions’

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://i1.wp.com/solitarywatch.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/adx-florence-7.jpg

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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