Michigan Attorney General to Appeal Order Giving Juvenile Lifers Chance for Parole

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette delivers his address at his inauguration on the steps of the Capitol in Lansing, Michigan on January 1, 2011
Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette delivers his address at his inauguration on the steps of the Capitol in Lansing, Michigan on January 1, 2011

Michigan’s attorney general announced Monday that he will appeal a federal judge’s order requiring the state to consider paroling about 350 prisoners serving life sentences without parole for crimes they committed as juveniles.

“First-degree murder is a serious crime, and it carries with it serious consequences,” AG Bill Schuette said in a news release.

“In every case where a juvenile is sentenced to life in prison, a victim was already sentenced to death – forever. The victim’s family then grapples with the aftermath of post-traumatic stress, depression, unyielding grief and visits to a grave.”

He said last week’s order would force families of murder victims to “relive the crime that took their loved ones away.”

Schuette said the order called for hearings not required by the U.S. Supreme Court or state courts, adding that “it ignores the authority of state court sentencing judges to object to parole when public safety requires it.”

The order, issued by U.S. District Court Judge John C. O’Meara, applies to inmates who have served at least 10 years.

In an earlier ruling, O’Meara had cited the 2012 Miller vs. Alabama Supreme Court case in which the high court ruled mandatory sentences of life without parole for juveniles violate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishment.”

In his order, O’Meara cited Miller as well as the 2010 Graham vs. Florida Supreme Court ruling that sentences of life without parole for juveniles were unconstitutional for crimes other than murder.

The Supreme Court has noted in its rulings that juveniles’ brains are not fully developed and youths are more susceptible than adults to peer pressure, more impulsive, more likely to take risks, less likely to consider long-term consequences and more amenable to rehabilitation.

O’Meara’s ruling came in a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Michigan on behalf of nine Michigan citizens who were sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for crimes committed when they were juveniles.

The suit challenged a law requiring that children charged with crimes including first-degree murder be tried as adults and, if convicted, sentenced to life without parole.

“This is a civil rights action challenging the treatment of youth inconsistent with their status and alleging that their punishment is cruel and unusual,” Deborah LaBelle, the lead attorney in the case, told JJIE.org.

LaBelle said courts, including the Supreme Court, have repeatedly made it clear that life without parole for those convicted of crimes they committed as juveniles amounts to “cruel and unusual punishment.”

“So we challenged that statute, saying that’s inconsistent with the Supreme Court’s ruling that youths should have a meaningful opportunity for release upon maturation and growth,” she said.

LaBelle expressed shock that Schuette announced plans to appeal O’Meara’s order.

“It’s eternally surprising to me that the state would want to continue to impose punishment that the U.S. Supreme Court has said is cruel and unusual, particularly an attorney general, who’s supposed to be upholding the state and the U.S. Constitution.

“The only argument I’ve heard in support of wanting to fight it is the attorney general continually citing the rights of victims’ families, but they’re not monolithic,” LaBelle said.

“We’ve had many families of victims who support the second chance and the process going forward on a fair basis … The only way to fairly go forward for all victims’ families is to have an equitable process in which they have a voice.”

Jody Kent Lavy, director and national coordinator at the Washington-based Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, which seeks to end the practice of life without parole for juvenile offenders, praised O’Meara’s ruling and order.

“I think that this is exactly the kind of approach that the Supreme Court intended in its rulings in Miller and in Graham, as it scaled back extreme sentences that have been imposed on young people in our country,” Lavy said.

“In both decisions, the [Supreme Court] emphasized the need for rehabilitation and for accountability measures for children and certainly said repeatedly that because kids are not adults and they are still developing that we can’t impose these final irrevocable judgments on them while they’re still growing and changing, and so we should be able to provide an opportunity to check in on them later in life.”

Lavy criticized the Michigan attorney general’s decision to appeal the order.

“It’s an unfortunate use of Michigan taxpayer dollars that they’re going to spend on litigation rather than focusing energy on fixing a system that the [U.S. Supreme Court] court has ruled unconstitutional,” she said.

Schuette argued the Supreme Court’s rulings should not apply to inmates already in prison. He pointed to the Supreme Court’s 1989 Teague v. Lane ruling, which he said established what’s commonly known as the “Teague Rule,” stipulating that Supreme Court rulings are generally not retroactive in matters of judicial process.

He also cited a state court ruling: In November 2012, the Michigan Court of Appeals ruled Miller vs. Alabama does not apply retroactively to people convicted of murder as teenagers who have already been found guilty and exhausted their direct appeals.

Schuette also said O’Meara’s ruling could undermine the statutory authority of state judges to block parole for violent criminals when public safety justified doing so.

In his order, O’Meara said Michigan must create an “administrative structure” to determine which inmates should be eligible for parole for crimes committed as juveniles.

The order said those who have served at least 10 years must be given notice that their eligibility for parole “will be considered in a meaningful and realistic manner.”

He ordered the state to comply with the order by Dec. 31.

It also requires the state to:

• Schedule proceedings, including public hearings, for eligible prisoners seeking parole.

• Set up a procedure to determine whether each eligible prisoner’s application should be considered by the entire state Parole Board.

• Ensure the proceedings are “fair, meaningful and realistic.”

• Make certain the Parole Board explains its decision in each case.

O’Meara’s order also forbids vetoes of Parole Board decisions by a judge or anyone else and requires that no prisoner sentenced to life without parole for a crime committed as a juvenile will be deprived of “any educational or training program which is otherwise available to the general prison population.”

If the state fails to comply with the order by Jan. 31, the judge threatened to appoint a special master “to make available to prisoners sentenced to life without parole for juvenile crimes the process this order envisions.”

Gun Rights, Gun Control and a Local Push to Tax Guns and Their Ammo

Ambitious and certain to draw criticism, President Barack Obama’s plan to rid the nation of the most powerful weapons on the market and attempt to arrest mass and everyday shootings was expected by Congress Wednesday, marking a sharp turn in a decades-long fight to curb America’s gun violence.

As the debate was playing out in Washington, several local and national leaders gathered at the University of Chicago Tuesday evening to discuss guns and policy, with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, whose city holds the dubious “murder capital” title, among the group and pushing sweeping gun control legislation that cracks down on assault weapons. Also on the panel was Democratic political consultant David Axelrod, who this week said that the National Rifle Association’s recent assertion that Congress would not enact the sort of change that Obama and others were pressing, was off base. In fact, he said, real legislation will squeeze through the legislative process and signal real change in the nation’s laws and gun dialogue. Also in attendance was the head of the University of Chicago CrimeLab, who noted that while the United States has managed to improve its count of more common crime – property theft, etc. – we are dubiously at the top in terms of violence.

While this played out, the NRA issued statements condemning the actions of New York lawmakers over a sweeping move late Monday-early Tuesday to ban assault and other high-powered weapons while also addressing the difficult, more open issue of mental illness. This comes after media reports over the past week showing that mental illness is, seemingly, not often considered by gun dealers when selling weapons in this nation.

So even as Washington remains center stage this week in the fight to curb gun violence, increase purchase-point background checks, better mind the mental health of buyers and put tighter limits on the legal gun market – a rights and safety battle that has gone on for decades but whose profile was fast raised by last month’s Newtown school massacre – the ramifications were fast cascading through the country.

Here, in Illinois – and, more narrowly, high-crime Cook County and Chicago – most of the political bigs have joined in a loud call to end the bloodshed that claimed upwards of 500 lives last year. In fact, Cook County, even before the Connecticut shooting rampage that killed 20 children and six school employees at Sandy Hook Elementary, as well as the gunman and his mother, was on to a somewhat different and unique idea: Tax bullets and filter that money into hospitals to care for those wounded by gunfire. The slayings also counted some 100 minors among the victims – and many teenagers are also counted among the suspects or those arrested in the slayings.

Also in Illinois, the battle over concealed-carry permits or licenses has restarted after a state ban was recently declared unconstitutional. Before Illinois lifted the ban, 49 states had already allowed people to carry firearms with a permit.

According to Richard Pearson, executive director of the Illinois State Rifle Association, the decision to allow people to carry concealed weapons would actually decrease violence, noting most mass shootings such as the Newtown shooting and the theater shooting in Aurora, CO earlier last year occurred in gun-free zones, where citizens were not allowed to have guns.

“So these gun-free zones become magnets for thugs and crazy people to attack other people because they know they can’t defend themselves,” Pearson said.

Although it is too early to see the impact of the lift, Illinois’ youth is deeply affected by firearms and, according to the Children’s Defense Fund, the state ranks among the top 10 in per capita gun-related homicide rates among children and teens.

And, as with other cities and states, policymakers here – as well as academics, editorialists, grassroots organizations and established institutions – Newtown was the impetus for upping the volume and speed of the political and everyday conversation on guns.

But while big names like Emanuel and Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, also a Democrat, drew much of the attention here – there is more focus growing up around Preckwinkle’s gun and bullet taxes. Preckwinkle, who also wants to ban assault weapons and joins Emanuel and Quinn at events on the issue, has been pushing twin taxes since October. The tax on gun purchases has passed and new restrictions take effect in April, with a planned $25 tax on firearm purchases to help pay for the sharp costs of public health and public safety. With the money raised, the county plans to shift $2 million toward violence prevention, intervention and reduction.

What remains an open question is whether the other proposal – to tax bullets and ammunition for these guns – will also get the nod and take effect to offset medical costs even more.

According to Cook County spokesman Owen Kilmer, the expected funds derived from the gun tax will primarily go to non-profit organizations that have known experience in violence prevention. At least $100,000 of the total will go towards education, enforcement, and straw purchases, or firearms purchased legally but then used for criminal activity.

Also, a seven-member advisory board at the county level will not only oversee the $2 million but also seek out effective models of gun control, and study the possible addition of a youth component.

But violence has always been a problem in Chicago with 2,051 shootings occurring in 2011 and about 700 more last year.

Chicago and Cook County residents met news of the tax and violence prevention pushes with as much skepticism as hope.

Those interviewed for the story, and polled by local media, apparently see the problem as less to do with the availability of guns, and more to do with youth falling through the cracks in the justice and child welfare systems, with broken families that, perhaps unintentionally, spin youth into the open arms of gangs through neglect, violence, and the chaos of troubled households.

With the tax still a couple of months off, there is no good way go gauge it’s potential. Yet, there are those like Briceson William, 28, a graduate of Austin High School on Chicago’s troubled West Side, who said the real problem lies with unemployment, deep poverty, poorly planned housing – and law enforcement, who, according to some crime and academic studies, are quick to throw minors in jail, crippling their opportunity to earn a decent living.

Mark Iris, a professor of political science at Northwestern University, attributes the high number of youth in jail to zero-tolerance policies here and elsewhere in the nation that criminalize ordinary classroom misbehavior. Taken with the high number of police in schools after the high-crime 1980s and 1990s – an issue given greater profile after Newtown – the zero-tolerance policies have, according to many of the same studies, created an atmosphere in schools where police interactions and quick responses to students and disciplinary problems have raised the number of police-juvenile interactions and, consequently, trips to police stations, courts, and even juvenile detention.

In fact, juvenile detention in Chicago has been a topic for debate. Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle has said the high rate of incarceration of minors should be wholly eliminated, that juvenile detention under her watch should be “blown up,” and, ultimately, that “we shouldn’t have a jail for kids. Period.”

According to the Chicago Youth Justice Data Project, in 2009 alone, the number of youth detained in Cook County juvenile detention centers was 5,608 – and roughly 84 percent of that population was African American, 12 percent Hispanic and 3 percent white. Overall population statistics for Chicago, which is in Cook County, show a split of about one-third black, one-third Hispanic and one-third white.

Not only is juvenile detention heavily skewed towards the black population today, but go back 10 years to a 2002 study by Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union, which showed that, very often, youth in solitary confinement do not receive any kind of educational training. Without such training, black and other minority youth are, by definition, ill-equipped to make a decent living once released and actually contribute to society instead of dragging it down with the high medical costs associated with violence, the steep costs of incarceration and courts and the high number of police. Studies show that turning schools into a sort of “police state,” as some legislators at the local and national level have put it, actually retards progress by halting a minor’s potential before it has a chance to be realized.

For example, once a youth enters the juvenile system – especially through the justice side but also through agencies like the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services or the county’s Public Guardian’s office – and have their records marred with a felony, the chances of them earning a job quickly diminish. Additionally, without proper education, the window of opportunity gets smaller.

“[When] in a juvenile center of some sort, or juvenile detention setting, it’s certainly going to disrupt [the youth’s] school progress, and realistically for many of these youths, they would have been at risk, [in a] disadvantaged position anyway,” Iris said.

“We can put the guns down if we get money, jobs,” William said. “[The government] gives us nothing to do. We’re sitting around twiddling our fingers all day long with nothing to do, looking at each other, walking down the street daily. I mean, something’s bound to happen.”

Angela Reavers, 36, an accountant from the South Side of Chicago, agreed that violence spins from a vicious cycle – one that often begins with the justice system or the child welfare system. And once a child is caught up in that system, the crossover between child welfare and justice is frequent and it becomes increasingly difficult to break free to a kind of normal life.

For her part, Reavers said, many times when young men and women are released from jail, they aren’t rehabilitated or given the proper tools to find a job. According to a 2006 report released by the Justice Policy Institute, the system is weighted heavily against blacks and Hispanics as white youth tend to have better access to programs and services.

Locked into this cycle, they many times ask themselves, “What do I do to live, to eat?” and in search of money, head out to the streets to find a way to provide for themselves. According to William, this plight was not only his, but many other’s as well.

After winning back his freedom, William said he has had to “hustle,” or sell whatever items he can find: clothes, socks, and shoes. “I gotta eat,” he said.

And so the lure of community in gangs becomes all the more appealing. Reavers said much of the violence and feeling of separation that feeds the gang network stems from a lack of a father figure. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2011 report, 51.2 percent of African American children in one-parent families lived with their mothers, whereas 3.5 percent of children in single-parent families lived with their fathers.

“Young men go to gangs because their fathers are not at home,” said Reavers, explaining the youth’s need for a sense of family. “And to a certain extent, gangs care; that’s what [youth] are looking for.”

But despite his conviction that Chicago has failed its youth and his belief that gun violence will only increase, William acknowledges that improvements have been made to better the lives of the neighborhood’s youth.

“I see they’re starting to [do] a lot of after school programs and stuff like that,” William said. “That’s good.”

Just across the street from where William and his friends spent the afternoon, East Garfield’s Richard T. Crane Technical Preparatory High School offers after-school work-study programs for its students to learn basic job-finding skills. Students like Marcus Hallam, 18, a senior, leave class early in order to attend a program where students are taught skills such as interviewing techniques. He is preparing to apply to colleges and possibly seek a sports scholarship.

Despite the acceleration of laws and talk and promises after such a violent year in Chicago, and the Sandy Hook tragedy, finding a solution to gun violence remains daunting. Small steps might be the answer, according to some observers, and Cook County’s proposals to tax weapons to raise funds for uninsured victims of shootings, which make up about 70 percent of victims, could prove a concrete start.

But, this too was met with some hesitancy, as William said he sees no clear purpose to the tax. “People [are] still going to get shot. [The politicians] [are] only taxing them for money [purposes], for their purpose, for their pockets. They aren’t taxing them for our pockets, [there isn’t any] money coming out here for us. The politicians in Illinois are untruthful, can’t be trusted.”

What many say is most important is that violence – chiefly that committed with firearms – needs to be stopped for upcoming generations. Termaine Johnson, 16, is a sophomore at Crane Tech. While he sees the county’s tax push as a “nice” way to raise revenues for gunshot victims, ultimately what he wants is an end to the violence that so bloodies Chicago and hurts the reputation of a city that is otherwise so prominent in business and culture.

“People…dying left and right…for nothing,” he said. “I just wish it could stop.”

This story appears in The Chicago Bureau. Bureau Editor Eric Ferkenhoff contributed to this story.

Photo by Natalie Krebs. 

Groups Urge Federal, State Legislation to End Solitary Confinement of Young People

Isolation cell at the Loysville Youth Development Center, Loysville, PA. Photo by Richard Ross

Recently, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Human Rights Watch published  a new report titled “Growing Up Locked Down: Youth in Solitary Confinement in Jails and Prisons Across the United States.”

The publication involved interviews with more than 125 juveniles in 19 states, alongside detention officials in 10 states. The authors of the report argue that solitary confinement harms young people mentally and physically, with juveniles frequently denied access to medical, rehabilitative and psychological treatments and services while in confinement. Furthermore, the report alleges that in jails and prisons across the United States, young people are routinely subjected to extensive stays in solitary confinement — in some cases, for weeks and even months at a time.

“Solitary confinement of adolescents is unnecessary,” the report reads. “There are alternative ways to address the problems — whether disciplinary, administrative, protective or medical — which officials typically cite as justifications for solitary confinement.”

The authors of the report state that approximately one third of the young people they interviewed reported being held in solitary confinement for one to six months before turning 18. Twenty-one juveniles said that, while in confinement, they were denied visitations with family members, while an additional 16 recalled being isolated for days on end, without even reading materials provided to them.

The report offers several recommendations for federal and state legislation, including the total prohibition of solitary confinement for inmates under the age of 18. The authors additionally call for the cessation of holding juveniles in adult prisons, as well as advocating for the ratification of human rights treaties “protecting young people without reservations.”

“Solitary confinement, and many of the deprivations that are typically associated with it, has a distinct and particularly profound impact on young people, often doing serious damage to their development and psychological and physical well-being,” the report states. “Because of the special vulnerability and needs of adolescents, solitary confinement can be a particularly cruel and harmful practice when applied to them.”

New Report: Minors in ‘Solitary’ Hallucinate, Harm Themselves

Some minors locked up alone for all but a couple of hours to protect them from adults, other threats

Isolation cell at the Loysville Youth Development Center, Loysville, PA: Photo by Richard Ross

A new report on solitary confinement of minors includes harrowing descriptions of the psychological and physical impact ‘solitary’ has on young people, as well as surprising revelations about why some authorities resort to isolating juveniles.

In “Growing Up Locked Down,” the groups Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union report that a substantial number of detained juveniles minors are placed in solitary confinement as punishment, or as part of their rehabilitation plans – or even for their own protection. Some custodians, researchers found, say they put juveniles who are in adult lockups into solitary confinement as a way to protect them from attacks by adult inmates.

Some minors interviewed said they were segregated in juvenile facilities for the same reason – to protect them from threats – and let out only for a couple of hours a day.

Released in October, the report is based on research and interviews conducted in local and state detention facilities in Florida, Colorado, Michigan, New York and Pennsylvania. Investigators also corresponded with confined minors in 14 other states.

“Because young people are still developing, traumatic experiences like solitary confinement may have a profound effect on their chance to rehabilitate and grow,” researchers said. Minors described experiencing hallucinations, cutting themselves with staples or razors and attempting suicide multiple times. Some said they were denied contact with loved ones while in ‘solitary,’ which increased their depression.

The report also says that a Pennsylvania prison official told researchers that many minors in solitary confinement are prescribed sleeping aids and other medications to help them “cope and reduce anxiety.”

A growing number of psychiatrists, juvenile-justice experts and custodians with direct control over juveniles are turning away from using solitary confinement for young people. The report cites various experts who recommend that segregation of youths to be as brief as possible and that custodians use of proven alternatives to control behavior.

“Prison and jail officials sometimes say it is necessary to separate an inmate, or groups of inmates, from others to ensure the security of staff and inmates in the general population,” according to the report. “When this happens, some state prison officials said that they have to use solitary confinement, as they are not equipped to manage individual or small groups of prisoners in any other way. But several prison officials often told Human Rights Watch that they would like to have the ability to manage youth differently.”

In July, the Center for Public Integrity published a report on how California prison guards and probation officers defeated  a state bill that would have required mental-health evaluations of minors every four hours if they are put into solitary confinement. The proposal would have applied to minors in state lockup as well as to those in local facilities, where most detained juveniles in California now reside. The guards, who are big campaign donors in California, and probation officers argued that the proposal was vague, would interfere with guards’ decisions and would cost counties money they didn’t have to hire more staff.

Other states have adopted standards in recent years restricting the use of solitary to control minors in detention, the Center report explained. In June, the U.S. Senate held the first-ever federal hearing on solitary confinement. Speakers described the adverse impact the practice had on inmates who were later released, and how the use of long-term segregation spread among state and federal facilities.

Photo by Richard Ross. 

Story from The Center for Public Integrity.

Solitary for Youth: The Fight in Illinois

Isolation cell at the Fairbanks Youth Facility Fairbanks AK. Photo by Richard Ross

CHICAGO — Even as national organizations rallied this week to end solitary confinement for incarcerated juveniles across the country, the local branch of American Civil Liberties Union is working with prison officials and the federal court to focus on the issue here.

The goal: settle a lawsuit on behalf of 2,217 incarcerated youth with the Illinois Department of Juvenile Corrections over the system’s inadequate services and often-hostile environment.

A preliminary agreement calls for curbing the growing practice of solitary confinement in youth centers, which activists say constitutes “torture,” given its potential for causing long-lasting psychological harm.

The proposed settlement, which is due for a fairness hearing in federal court in Chicago on December 6, would be the latest victory in a larger movement to end the punitive isolation of youth in custody. In June, Congress held its first hearing on the issue of solitary confinement within U.S. prisons, where roughly 80,000 inmates are in “restricted housing“ at any given time nationwide, according to a 2005 census of adult inmates by the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Long a focus of the adult prison reform movement, advocates say the practice is even more damaging to emotionally developing juvenile offenders.

Solitary confinement should be reserved for violent offenses, such as fighting or attacking a guard, according to federal law. But investigations of Illinois’ juvenile facilities conducted by the Juvenile Justice Project at the John Howard Association found that youth were frequently isolated for non-violent offenses. Juvenile offenders have been separated for transgressions as minor as eating a guard’s food.

Prison staff often separate youth on the charge of “intimidation,” which John Howard Association of Illinois noted lacked any formal definition. According to the prison reform organization, youth in custody are subject to “a lottery of sorts,” in which their punishment often relies on the guard’s disposition.

ACLU settlement doesn’t call for outright abolishment of solitary confinement, but rather clarification of what constitutes an offense punishable by isolation. ACLU-Illinois Senior Counsel Adam Schwartz, for example, said there might arise rare instances where a juvenile is violent or physically out of control and in need of a short “time-out.”

Joshua Delaney of the Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, said some prisons also place youth in solitary confinement when they first arrive as a hopeful deterrent for future misbehavior.

“At one facility, approximately 20 percent of youth were housed in isolation on any given day, and denied essential programming, services and recreation,” Delaney said during a recent online gathering of juvenile justice officials and advocates, hosted by the National Center for Youth in Custody.

“Part of the problem stemmed from the bizarre facility practice of routinely isolating incoming residents for a number of days,” he said, “reportedly for the purpose of determining whether each new youth would pose a threat to the facility.”

Activists also discovered that non-offending youth are sometimes placed in solitary confinement as a means to protect them from potential abuse or harassment at the hands of other inmates.

A 2011 visit to Illinois Youth Center St. Charles found that because of its inadequate infirmary, injured or sick youth were being housed in solitary confinement. After a Juvenile Justice Project report on the problem, the center now sends their sick youth to a nearby youth facility with adequate health care.

Other recent efforts may help curb the practice of “protective” isolation. It is common for facilities to house gay and transgender youth separately in order to prevent physical or verbal victimization by other juvenile inmates. But according to a recent study on LGBTQ youth in custody by the policy think tank Center for American Progress, the practice further marginalizes the potential victim.

“This isolation perpetuates the stigmatization of gay and transgender youth, casts them as sexually deviant, and signals that they might be of threat to other youth,” according to the report. Rules for complying with the Prison Rape Elimination Act, issued in late August, have outlawed this practice.

A 2006 Washington University report found that solitary confinement can lead to trauma, psychosis and aggression among youth. Half of all suicides that take place within juvenile detention centers happen within solitary confinement. Roughly 65 percent of young people who committed suicide had a history of separation.  ACLU and Human Rights Watch released a joint report documenting the frequent use of solitary confinement of juveniles Wednesday.

U.N. Special Rapporteur on torture Juan E. Méndez called for a ban on solitary confinement of young people and inmates with mental illness in 2011. “Considering the severe mental pain or suffering solitary confinement may cause…  it can amount to torture or cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment when used as a punishment…  for persons with mental disabilities or juveniles,” he said in a statement before the U.N. General Assembly.

Advocates hope a combination of international human rights pressure and local legislation will force American detention centers to rethink isolation of young offenders.

“There’s movement both on the congressional level and on the state level,” said Baher Azmy, legal director for Center for Constitutional Rights.

The center has led several lawsuits against solitary confinement, most recently in Pelican Bay, Calif. Azmy said focusing on youth may motivate legislators to stand up and address the issue of isolation.

“The important thing is to use litigation in combination with organization, media and legislative advocacy” said Azmy.

Photo by Richard Ross. 

Story from The Chicago Bureau

FCC Looks Likely to Cap Phone Rates for Prisoners

Nine years since it was first petitioned to do so by families of people behind bars, the Federal Communications Commission appears closer to imposing a limit on the soaring rates some prisoners have to pay to make interstate telephone calls. It won’t say when it will take action, however.

The FCC’s consumer advisory committee submitted a list of recommendations last month urging the FCC to ensure that prices for phone calls from prison are kept to “reasonable” levels. And both the FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski and FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn have come out in support of limiting charges by private companies holding monopolies over prison telephone service in many states.

The push to cap prison phone rates started when Martha Wright, a grandmother who could not afford to call her grandson when he was incarcerated, filed a petition in 2003 asking the FCC to take regulatory action. Her 2000 lawsuit against a private prison company had gone nowhere, with the judge telling her it was up to the FCC to determine what reasonable interstate telephone rates should be.

The FCC has not taken any definitive action since the petition was filed, but the agency has been facing increasing pressure by advocates and receiving letters of support from inmates, their family members and advocates.

The letters often poignantly describe the impact of unaffordable phone calls on families.

“Dear Mr. [FCC Chairman Julius] Genachowski, My problem is this. I have life plus in prison and my family is all that I have,” wrote Delmont M. Player, an inmate in Cumberland, Md., to the FCC in August.

“There are so many days when I just need to hear a loved one’s voice to calm me down or carry me on. Then there’s the days when let’s say my wife needs to vent or my daughter’s having issues, etc. Yet I can’t even have a decent conversation because what little money I have goes so fast. Most times I end my phone calls more angry and frustrated than I was when I got on. It’s just like taking my freedom was not enough. Now they got to punish my family.”

The letter ended with a simple question. “When you have lost all forms of communication with the one thing that keeps you grounded, what else is there to lose?”

By keeping prisoners from staying in touch with their families, high telephone rates in prison deprive children from knowing an incarcerated parent, encourage recidivism and endanger communities, advocates say and the recommendations from the FCC’s own advisory committee echo.

More than half the people in state prison and 63 percent of those in federal prisons had children under 18, according to a report, The Price to Call Home: State-Sanctioned Monopolization in the Prison Phone Industry, released by the Prison Policy Initiative in September. “Lowering the cost of communications for these incarcerated persons and their children would improve parent-child relationships by permitting more frequent communication,” the report said.

That’s important because more frequent communication between prisoners and their families reduces the likelihood that released individuals will commit more crimes and return to prison, research has found, the report said.

“Foregoing revenue from exorbitant phone rates now will decrease correctional departments’ costs in the future because fewer people will find themselves back in prison,” the report argued.

The FCC consumer advisory committee made a similar point in its list of recommendations for the agency. “Phone calls are a critical part of the reentry process as maintaining strong family and community connections help inmates prepare for parole, coordinate their legal defense, find housing and secure employment,” it said.

The prison phone industry is dominated by three large companies, which strike exclusive contracts with states, set high phone rates and then provide a share of their revenue back to the state, according to the report The Price to Call Home.

Private phone companies that have struck a deal with a particular state can charge a prisoner $3.95 just to connect his collect call to a number outside that state, and then charge nearly 90 cents a minute after that, advocates said. As a result, a 15-minute phone call from a prison can cost as much as $15 to $17.

“It is cheaper to call Singapore at 12 cents a minute from a cell phone than it would be to speak to someone in prison in this country,” said a letter sent to the FCC in May that was signed by 30 organizations and individuals, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the National Urban League and the National Organization for Women.

Lobbying by prison telephone companies has kept the FCC from capping phone rates for incarcerated people, charges the report The Price to Call Home. “Prison phone companies continue to resist a regulation that is eminently reasonable and that would permit them to make handsome profits while simultaneously reducing crime,” it said. “This is corporate greed and disregard for public welfare at its worst.”

“Prison phone rates serious issue for families, communities, security. FCC mtg w/ stakeholders, preparing next step,” tweeted FCC Chairman Genachowski during a question and answer session on Twitter last month.

FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn’s Sept. 24 statement also indicated action was coming.

“It is the Commission’s responsibility to ensure that interstate phone rates are just and reasonable, and we have an obligation to ensure that basic, affordable phone service is available to all Americans, including low-income consumers. Incarcerated individuals and their loved ones should not be the exceptions here, and as watchdogs of the public interest, this Commission must and should act expeditiously,” her statement read.

“I am pleased that the Chairman has been receptive to the Wright Petitioners, and my discussions with him and his office have been very positive about the next steps needed to move forward in this proceeding.”

The FCC did not return a message asking what the next step will be.

ACLU, Human Rights Watch Press for End to Juvenile Solitary Confinement

A solitary confinement cell at the Loysville Youth Development Center, Loysville, Pa. Photo by Richard Ross.

CHICAGO — The American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch published a stinging indictment Wednesday against the use of solitary confinement on minors – adding momentum to a lawsuit filed here last month claiming youth were locked in tiny, haunting cells for brushes as minor as speaking out of turn to a guard or disrupting a meal.

Wednesday’s 141-page report, which captured harrowing accounts from youngsters locked in solitary for up to months at a time, if not longer, called for an end to the practice, the exploration of remedial alternatives and changes to state and federal laws that currently allow for the practice.

Solitary — according to the report’s interviews with prison officials and 125 minors from 19 states, including visits to facilities in Colorado, Florida, Michigan, New York and Pennsylvania — can cause irreparable harm to a minor’s psychological makeup at the very time their minds are maturing. Just as troubling, according to the report and experts in the field, solitary can re-traumatize juveniles who have grown up with abusive and violent pasts.

“The hardest thing about isolation is that you are trapped in such a small room by yourself,” according to a March interview in the report with a Michigan inmate identified as Paul K. “There is nothing to do so you start talking to yourself and getting lost in your own little world. It is crushing. You get depressed and wonder if it is even worth living. Your thoughts turn over to the more death-oriented side of life … I want[ed] to kill myself.”

The punishment, researchers found, was practiced in juvenile facilities as well as on minors sentenced to adult jails and prisons.

Much of the report echoed the claims made in a federal lawsuit filed by the ACLU-Illinoisagainst the state’s juvenile corrections department last month. At the time the suit was filed in federal court in Chicago in mid-September, the ACLU included a sort-of prescription for remedying the problem in Illinois facilities.

“Our position is solitary confinement is never appropriate for juveniles with the sole exceptions of maybe an hour or so for somebody who may be physically out of control, as part of a behavioral intervention, time-out program,” said ACLU-Illinois Senior Counsel Adam Schwartz. “But anything other than that is just completely inappropriate for children.

ACLU-Illinois filed suit and a companion proposal to remedy the problem in mid-September,

A solitary cell at the Harrison County Juvenile Detention Center, Biloxi, Miss. Photo by Richard Ross.

Schwartz said. The suit and the proposal focuses on five areas of concern, among them solitary confinement for inmates ages 13 to 20.

The federal judge in the case signed off on a preliminary agreement, but a fairness hearing to actually kick in a period of monitoring and investigating isn’t scheduled until December 6 – “and hopefully that will end solitary confinement in Illinois,” Schwartz said.

“Solitary breaks the spirit and injures the mental health of adults,” he said. “Children, of course, are more vulnerable,” as their minds experience time more slowly, the chemical wiring of their brains is still ongoing and the punishment comes at the very time these minors need the sort of human interaction that will lead to more social and productive experiences.

“When you throw someone in solitary confinement, it re-traumatizes them, it’s a very upsetting experience, and it’s not just the confinement itself,” Schwartz said. “The place is filthy, it is small, it’s dark, it smells, there are bugs. And it’s not just for a violent offense. There’s kids who ate off someone else’s plate, or they were mouthy with a guard or they refused to step out of their cell at the breakfast call in the morning. We think there’s too much use, the conditions are horrible and really, the only solution is to just get rid of solitary confinement in juvenile prisons.”

The national report notes that in New York’s storied Rikers Island, the average stay of juveniles in solitary confinement was 43 days at a facility where nearly half of all adolescents have been diagnosed with some sort of mental illness. Overall in New York during the last fiscal year, which ended in June, almost 15 percent of the state system’s inmates under the age of 18 had spent time in solitary.

In a statement, Ian Kysel, a Aryeh Neier Fellow with Human Rights Watch and the ACLU, and the report’s author, said: “No one believes that locking a teenager in a closet is an effective way to improve either their behavior or their character, much less to protect them long term… Young people have rights and needs that are different from adults; jail and prison practices should reflect those differences and promote their ability to grow and change – we should invest in youth, not banish them.”

Photo by Richard Ross. Story from The Chicago Bureau

Community-Based Intervention Programs May Be Beneficiaries of Youth PROMISE ACT

Recently, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) hosted a congressional briefing on the 2011 documentary film “The Interrupters.”

Sponsored by the ACLU’s Washington Legislative Office, the briefing featured statements from Congressman Bobby Scott (D-VA) and a panel discussion featuring Alex Kotlowitz, the producer of “The Interrupters” and author of the book “There Are No Children Here.”

“The Interrupters” focused on Chicago’s CeaseFire movement, a grassroots project in which members of communities seek to reduce acts of youth violence through localized, concentrated intervention programs.

CeaseFire employs “violence interrupters,” community members who work with youth in high-violence areas, to pinpoint and prevent potential crimes before they transpire. Two “violence interrupters,” Cobe Williams and Ameena Matthews, were present at the ACLU’S briefing in Washington, D.C.

The event drew the attention of a diverse group of attendees, including high school principals, public health officials, law professors and congressional staff. Congressman Scott hailed the Youth PROMISE Act — proposed legislation that would provide funding for comprehensive, community-based intervention programs, such as CeaseFire — as a potential means of curbing street gang activity and juvenile delinquency.

The Youth PROMISE Act — officially titled the Youth Prison Reduction through Opportunities, Mentoring, Intervention, Support and Education Act — would provide funding for evidence-based practices regarding the prevention of juvenile delinquency and gang activity.

The bipartisan-sponsored bill would also amend the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974 by creating a Youth PROMISE advisory panel to aid the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

“Nothing in the Youth PROMISE Act eliminates any of the current tough on crime laws,” Rep. Scott stated in a recent editorial on his website. “And while it is understood that law enforcement will still continue to enforce those laws, research tells us that no matter how tough we are on the people we prosecute today, unless we are addressing the underlying root causes of criminal activity, nothing will change.”

Civil Suit Challenges Life Without Parole for Kids

There are new legal challenges popping up across the country in the wake of the Graham v. Florida Supreme Court decision, which made life without parole sentences for juveniles unconstitutional in cases that don’t involve murder.

Unlike appeals filed in Florida and Pennsylvania, the American Civil Liberties Union is suing Michigan government officials on behalf of nine convicts who were sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole for crimes they committed when they were minors, according to the Jurist.

Michigan law requires mandatory life sentences for certain crimes committed by kids who are 14 to 17 years old. The ACLU argues their rights have been violated because they don’t have the chance for parole by demonstrating growth or maturity.

As JJIE.org reported in September, the Graham decision relies on the concept that because a teen’s brain is not fully developed, he or she deserves a chance to change.

The ruling could have an impact on more than 100 cases in the state of Florida and so far five inmates have filed appeals in Pennsylvania.