Posts Tagged ‘Westchester County jail’

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

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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.

Repost from “Solitary Watch”

March 26, 2010

Mother Jones this week ran a powerful two-part excerpt from a new book called I Don’t Wish Nobody to Have a Life Like Mine: Tales of Kids in Adult Lockup. The book is by David Chura, who worked for 10 years as an English teacher in the Westchester County Jail. The published excerpt focuses on the jail’s Special Housing Unit (SHU), which is the euphemism New York State uses for solitary confinement.

As the editors’ introduction puts it, “These state-of-the-art, maximum-security isolation blocks became a trend during the late-1990s prison-building boom…And to accompany the construction spree, state and federal legislators enacted new laws that gave more kids adult sentences in adult institutions.”

As we’ve written before on Solitary Watch, in addition to these converging trends, children in adult correctional facilities are disproportionately likely to be placed in solitary confinement–either because they act up, or for their own “protection.” Large numbers of these kids have psychiatric or emotional problems to begin with, and the affects of isolation on their growing bodies and minds is usually devastating. Cutting and other forms of self-harm are common among these incarcerated children, and suicides are far from rare.

Part 1 of the two-part excerpt from Chura’s book vital background by describing the opening of the then-new SHU, which was actually celebrated as a great improvement over the rest of the jail–cleaner, safer, quieter, and implicitly, more humane. Initially Chura’s students even seemed better behaved–more attentive and less rowdy.

In Part 2, the truth begins to emerge. We’ve included a sample here, but the excerpts–and no doubt the book, as well–are worth reading in full. Chura has also started a blog on abuses of juveniles in the justice system.

It was only after I had been visiting the SHU for a while that I began to see things differently. At first, I thought the changes in my students’ behavior were the result of the calmer, cleaner environment.

But more and more I realized that it was, in fact, the result of their total isolation. They listened, they studied my face, they begged me to return, and they watched me leave because they were hungry—for words, sounds, the sight of people—any stimulation that broke their solitude.

In the months that followed, the SHU began to show this underbelly of deprivation. Conditions deteriorated. The walls got scuffed and nicked where inmates struggled against the emergency response teams carrying them in. Windows grew smeared from hands and faces pressed against the glass.

Gradually, the inmates stopped making their beds. They piled clothes on the floor. They left books and papers wherever they dropped. Now when I visited after class, some of my students would be sleeping. They’d bury themselves under the covers, their heads wrapped up in towels for warmth and to shut out the light.

If I was able to wake them, calling through the tray slot, they’d grumble and splutter to be left alone. Once they knew it was me and got up, they were still polite and appreciative, but they would stare, stunned and bewildered—wondering if I was real or just part of some dream.

And they were dirty. Even the guys who were usually fastidious about grooming became sloppy and disheveled. Like Pinto, who used to arrive to class every day scrubbed, shaved, and smelling of Old Spice. His county oranges would be pressed, and his hair clipped short and brushed to a black lacquer.

But in the SHU, his eyes grew puffy and crusted from endless hours of sleep. His face was covered with a patchy, scruffy beard, and his hair was knotted and woolly. When he leaned down to talk to me his breath was sour, and the odor of his unwashed clothes and body rose out of the metal opening like a malevolent genie.

An update on conditions for at the Westchester County Jail can be found in a scathing report released last fall by the Justice Department, which among other things looked at the use of solitary confinement on juveniles. As summarized by Mother Jones:

At the Westchester lockup, investigators found that half of the inmates recently consigned to the SHU were 16 to 18 years old, and many were doing stints of a year or more in isolation. One 16-year-old got 510 days for assaulting a guard. Another teen, an 18-year-old, was simply thrown in the SHU indefinitely. “Such sentences,” the report noted, “may inflict substantial psychological harm” on juveniles.

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“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.