The Power Grab and Prison Sexual Abuse

It’s an optimistic headline: “Prison Rape: Obama’s Program to Stop It”. It leads into a comprehensive New York Review of Books article on three recently released Federal government publications.  Two of these documents examine sexual abuse in the nation’s detention centers while the other outlines the Department of Justice’s regulations for eliminating prison rape. All three aim to address the appalling number of people—young and old, female and male, citizen and those awaiting deportation— who  routinely suffer sexual violence while in lockup, an estimated 209,000 plus every year according to the Justice Department.

So where’s the optimism? The guidelines established by the Obama administration are—on paper, at least—good ones. As the reviewers David Kaiser and Lovisa Stannow (both staunch advocates for victims of prison sexual assault) note, the new recommendations address pivotal issues: how detention centers are staffed, how those staffs are trained in sexual abuse issues, and how inmates are supervised. Equally important is how offenders are evaluated for their potential as either sexual prey or predator. This provision is crucial in protecting young offenders, especially LGBT youth who are in greater danger of sexual harassment and abuse by peers and adult inmates. Once this information is obtained housing can be assigned based on vulnerability, which in the case of minors means not being housed with adults. There are also new standards on how prisoners can report sexual assault and on how that information is handled and investigated by staff. Kaiser and Stannow write that if these standards are successful—“and we believe they will be”—then the incidences of prison rape will be reduced dramatically.

But I can’t share their optimism. I wish I could. My skepticism stems from the way in which these regulations are to be enforced.  Enforcement will be the responsibility of the state departments of corrections and the correctional staff in charge of prisons and jails.

Anyone who has worked in a detention facility knows the power of frontline staff to sabotage whatever standards or procedures are put in place. In my ten years working as a high school teacher in a county prison I’ve watched this culture of obstruction play out as many correctional staff subvert—sometimes blatantly, most times covertly—everything from innovative grant-funded projects designed to reduce recidivism in young offenders to simple routines such as making sure all inmates daily attend their assigned programs, all measures that would provide true “safety and security” for staff as well as inmates and that would further the stated goal of incarceration: rehabilitation.

What’s behind this apparently illogical obstruction? It is the same dynamic that informs so much of what goes on in any detention system; it is certainly the dynamic that is behind all prison sexual violence: the power grab. All lockups whether they be for adults, minors or immigrants awaiting deportation are run on a hierarchy of power: Who’s got it, who wants it and what you’ll do to get it. Within this structure there is the inevitable scramble for power and position in an environment where everyone feels impotent.

People who are locked up live every day of their incarceration with this lack of control (and for so many of them, every day of their lives) and so understandably make the power grab. This is especially true for young offenders who are the most vulnerable in this predatory world. Ironically it is just as pronounced with correctional staff. Over my years in the prison system I’ve often heard officers openly complain that the work they do is just as dangerous, if not more so than other law enforcement officers, yet they feel they are underpaid and not respected as professionals by their peers and society in general. So what better way to “stick it” to the system, to “show” wardens, county executives, the Feds, civilians, and certainly inmates that COs are the ones who make or break things in prison than by subverting regulations, routines, and structures.

The Obama guidelines are strong in addressing the delicate and fraught issue of sexual violence. This is especially true when it comes to the victimization of young people and the sexually vulnerable. Is it wise then to leave their implementation in the hands of the people who are themselves part of the problem both in terms of upholding standards and in terms of actually being sexual assailants themselves? (Reports show that half of all sexual abuse is committed by correctional staff.)

Kaiser and Stannow are confident that enforcement of these regulations “will make American detention facilities better run, more humane, and safer places in general.” It is a hopeful vision. But if we want detention centers that are humane and safe we have to go beyond a fresh set of regulations. We need to make fundamental changes in the prison system: confront the perverted power structure—and struggle—that dominates these institutions and that leads to sexual violence and replace it with a form of justice that truly values rehabilitation and that restores dignity and respect to victim, inmate and correctional staff. Radical steps? Yes. Do we have a choice? The numbers say we don’t—because each incident of prison rape radically changes a person’s life forever.

National Academies Report Says Teen Neurology Should Shape Juvenile Justice Reform Efforts

brain scansA new report from the National Research Council suggests that juvenile justice reform efforts should be grounded in the emerging understanding of adolescent development.

Reforming Juvenile Justice: A Developmental Approach,” sponsored by the federal Department of Justice, draws strong connections between the neurological development of teens and their environmental influences as factors in juvenile delinquency.

“Adolescence is a distinct, yet transient, period of development between childhood and adulthood characterized by increased experimentation and risk-taking, a tendency to discount long-term consequences, and heightened sensitivity to peers and other social influences,” the report says.

The report continues: “Evidence of significant changes in brain structure and function during adolescence strongly suggests that these cognitive tendencies characteristic of adolescents are associated with biological immaturity of the brain and with an imbalance among developing brain systems.”

The study says that confinement deprives young people of the ability to develop critical thinking and decision-making skills, and argue that instead, “well-designed, community-based programs” would better serve juvenile offenders.

According to the authors of the report, “accountability practices” implemented in the adult court system should not be used as a model for juvenile justice, advocating the use of detention only when young people present a physical threat to themselves or others. Even in instances of violent crimes, researchers state that they do not believe that juveniles should be held in adult facilities, and encourage maintaining the confidentiality of juvenile records as a means of establishing more successful “transitions into adulthood” for young offenders.

The report also finds that minority youths are disproportionately represented in the nation’s juvenile justice system, generally receiving more severe sentences for committing many of the same offenses as Caucasian adolescents. Researchers also state that juvenile courts should make sure that young people are both competent enough to understand court proceedings and receive representation from well-trained counselors, adding that young people are more likely to accept responsibility for their actions when they perceive legal proceedings to be fair and understandable.

“Given current fiscal constraints, collaboration among federal agencies should also be geared toward pooling resources and simplifying processes for the delivery of support and services,” the report concludes. “Sustained progress toward formulating and implementing developmentally appropriate juvenile justice policies and practices will depend on the willingness of state, local and tribal juvenile justice policy makers and federal agencies to collaborate fully and share the responsibility for carrying out their important missions.”

Sexual Trauma Marks Girls’ Path to Juvenile Justice System

Crystal Contreras, who served five years in a juvenile justice facility in California, is now studying sociology in college and volunteering with foster kids.

When Crystal Contreras was seven and living in Los Angeles, her mother put her in the care of someone Contreras saw as a father figure. Instead, he pressured the little girl for sex. For the next three years, until she was 10, the man raped her regularly, often creeping into the house at night without her mother’s knowledge.

“I never said nothing to my mom,” Contreras told during an interview in July. “I was scared he would kill her or hurt her or hurt the animals that I had. I felt like I was protecting her. But what I did – I started acting out.”

Contreras, now 21 and in college, completed a five-year term at a juvenile detention facility in California last year, she said. Her history of sexual trauma echoes the stories of tens of thousands of girls who find themselves in the juvenile justice system, a history that advocates and professionals in the field say the states and federal government must take into account when designing rehabilitation programs to meet girls’ needs.

While the number of girls who had contact with the juvenile justice system in 2010 equaled only about 40 percent of the number of boys, girls are more likely to be detained for minor offenses related to their underage status, like truancy or running away, according to a report released Tuesday by the Georgetown Center on Poverty, Inequality and Public Policy. Less than 10 percent of juvenile arrests for violent crimes involved girls, the report said.

“Overall, the juvenile justice system is ill-equipped to serve girls effectively, having failed to implement the reforms called for by a growing body of research on the needs of the girls in its care,” said the report, “Improving the Juvenile Justice System for Girls: Lessons from the States.”

Malika Saar, executive director of the Human Rights Project for Girls, told an interagency gathering of federal officials in Washington, D.C., last month that the so-called school-to-prison pipeline applies mainly to boys. For girls, Saar said, the biggest funnel into the prison system is sexual abuse.

Liz Watson, a co-author of the Georgetown report, echoed Saar’s description.

“What really stands out about girls’ particular pathway into the system is that very often, the girls are in the system for things like running away and truancy, and sometimes, being picked up for prostitution, which is really exploitation for these girls,” Watson said. “So the reasons they get into the system are gender bias and exploitation and abuse.”

To add insult to injury, she said, “Once they’re there, girls have harsher penalties than boys for status offenses.”

Acting Asst. Attorney General Mary Lou Leary (left) and Acting Administrator of the OJJDP Melodee Hanes (second to left) listen to testimony from formerly incarcerated women and their advocates about the experience of girls in the juvenile justice system during the quarterly meeting of the federal interagency Coordinating Council for Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention last month.

Withelma "T" Ortiz Walker Pettigrew, 23, testified about her detention experiences in California and Nevada before a federal interagency committee, the Coordinating Council of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, in Washington, D.C., in September.

The council, an independent body created under the authority of the federal Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974, meets quarterly to coordinate the program efforts of federal government agencies. It includes cabinet members from the departments of Labor, Health, Housing and Urban Development, Education and Homeland Security.

Last month marked the first time since 2000 that the council had met to discuss the issue of girls in the juvenile justice system. The meeting 12 years ago led the U.S. Department of Justice to create the National Girls Study Group, a multi-year research effort into strategies for keeping girls from entering the system, Melodee Hanes, the acting administrator for Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, told the council.

Another outcome of the 2000 meeting was the creation of the National Girls Institute within the federal juvenile justice office in the U.S. Department of Justice, a clearinghouse for research and technical assistance, Hanes said. The institute recently released its own findings from a series of national “listening sessions” with girls in the system, their families and other stakeholders.

Although most cabinet-level members were not present at September’s meeting, their agency representatives listened intently as field professionals and women who had been incarcerated as girls testified about their experiences with the system.

Pettigrew told the council she was trafficked as a minor, coerced into sex and kept captive.

“I was sent to the juvenile justice system for a crime that technically, according to the law, I did not have the ability or consent to commit,” Pettigrew said. “I was a victim of child abuse but I was the one put behind bars.”

Watson calls girls like Pettigrew and Contreras “the walking wounded” who are often re-traumatized in detention. Despite her history of sexual abuse, Pettigrew found herself in a facility with no doors on the showers or the toilets, and male staff members to watch the girls. The lack of doors in showers and toilets comes up regularly in descriptions of facilities by advocates and girls.

Withelma Ortiz Walker Pettigrew (center) speaking about her experience in the juvenile justice system in front of the federal interagency Coordinating Council for Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention in Washington D.C. last month. She hopes to attend college in D.C.

“Understanding the pathway for girls, and really the history of exploitation and abuse, is key to being able to undertake reform efforts that are really responsive to girls’ needs,” Watson told

The Georgetown report came out of a meeting of experts and professionals last year where, Watson said, few knew of innovations by states other than their own. “It’s extremely important that states that are interested in reforms have the examples of other states to work on so they’re not re-creating the wheel,” Watson said.

The report outlines reform efforts by Connecticut, Florida and one California county, and offers recommendations for the federal government that echo those presented to the coordinating council by Pettigrew and other advocates.

The federal government must fund research and evaluation of girls’ programs, improve the assessment and data collection tools available for girls, and encourage states to develop programs that are geared toward girls’ particular needs and that take into account their history of sexual trauma, trafficking and exploitation, they say.

Back in Los Angeles, Contreras is now taking college sociology courses, working for a major health care organization and volunteering at a program for foster youth. During her last couple of years in detention, she said, she realized she had to take care of herself if she wanted to succeed.

Pettigrew is applying to undergraduate programs and trying to collect funds for college. It’s hard sharing her story in a roomful of people, she said, especially when few share her history. But she needs to do it, she said, so more people can understand what it’s like to be a girl in the system.

Photos by Kaukab Jhumra Smith

Department of Justice Sues over ‘School-to-Prison Pipeline’ in Meridian, Miss.


The federal Department of Justice (DOJ) is suing the Mississippi county, city and judges who they say systematically ignore youthful defendants’ rights, resulting in a well-beaten path from school to incarceration.

“The department is bringing this lawsuit to ensure that all children are treated fairly and receive the fullest protection of the law,” said Thomas E. Perez, assistant attorney general for the DOJ Civil Rights Division, in a written statement on Oct. 24.

The suit is being brought against the city of Meridian, Lauderdale County, the two judges of the county Youth Court and the state of Mississippi.“It is in all of our best interests to ensure that children are not incarcerated for alleged minor infractions, and that police and courts meet their obligations to uphold children’s constitutional rights,” he wrote.

The DOJ published preliminary accusations against the now-defendants some 10 weeks ago, threatening a lawsuit if the Mississippians did not cooperate.

Meridian and Lauderdale’s attorneys countered that the DOJ investigation was cursory, and that the DOJ had asked for confidential records that the Mississippi judges could not legally provide.

[module align="right" width="half" type="aside"] 

Learn more about school discipline reform trends at the Juvenile Justice Resource Hub HERE.


“It is disappointing that the local and state government agencies involved in the administration of juvenile justice in Lauderdale County have not worked cooperatively with the Justice Department to resolve these violations,” said Gregory Davis, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Mississippi, in the same Oct. 24 written statement.

The department is holding a conference call about the suit on Oct. 25 to give more details about the investigation and complaint.

A similar set of complaints has been brought by the DOJ against the youth court in Memphis and Shelby County, Tennessee. In that case, the courts have agreed to make changes and are negotiating with the federal government on better practices, thereby evading a lawsuit.

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

DOJ Quiet on Mississippi Ultimatum to Respond to School-to-Jailhouse Pipeline Allegations

Meridian courthouseA key deadline has passed in the federal investigation of an alleged “school-to-prison” pipeline in Meridian, Miss., without the U.S. Department of Justice taking any visible action.

The DOJ threatened a federal lawsuit “unless there are meaningful negotiations … within 60 days” of an Aug. 10 public letter. That letter accused the City of Meridian, Lauderdale County and state agencies of running a shoddy juvenile justice system. African-American students and students who have disabilities, according to the letter, are disproportionately caught in the net.

The DOJ, through a spokeswoman, declined to comment on the case or deadline.

No changes have happened at Meridian city schools in the interim.

[module align="right" width="half" type="aside"] 

Learn more about school discipline reform trends at the Juvenile Justice Resource Hub HERE.


On Oct. 10, Meridian schools spokeswoman Elizabeth McDonald said, “since we weren't named in the letter, we have not been involved with any aspect of the letter or with the city and county related to the letter. Given that the letter was not directed to the Meridian Public School District, the schools haven't been impacted by it.”

Meridian’s school board is named by the city mayor and confirmed by city council, but was not a recipient of the DOJ’s complaint.

"I'm not surprised by the ‘no comment’ by the DOJ,” said Lauderdale County NAACP Education Chair Randle Jennings. He said clearly the city and county are aware of the charges leveled against them, but accuses them of failing to communicate with constituents. “There has not been one comment coming from any city, county, or state representative official since the story broke.  All these are signs of pure guilt,” he charged.

schoolppipe_seriesThe original DOJ letter describes practices that channel Meridian city schoolchildren into a “cycle of incarceration without substantive and procedural protections required by the U.S. Constitution,” such as the right to speedy trial and an attorney. The. DOJ said it amounts to a school-to-prison pipeline.

But Lauderdale and Meridian called the findings “one-sided” and based on an investigation that was unprofessional and undertaken by inexperienced staff, according to a letter from their official attorneys to the DOJ. They said the DOJ had received unreliable information, had interviewed only “a few” families and made their conclusions on unsubstantiated claims.

The Meridian city attorney did not immediately return a request for comment.

Photo by Bill Herndon. 

Tennessee County Researching Juvenile Justice Fixes

The juvenile justice system in Shelby County, Tenn. is entering its fourth year of federal inspection, now with a thick report about alleged problems.  A full remediation plan for the court could be drafted in the next three months.

The Juvenile Court of Memphis and Shelby County denies due process to youth, according to an April, 2012 report by the federal Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division. The investigation finds probable cause to believe that some youth are not adequately notified of the charges against them, are not advised of their Miranda rights, do not enjoy timely probable cause hearings and are sent to adult court on only cursory inquiries. The look at 66,000 court records also, the DOJ argues, shows that black children are treated less leniently than white peers.

“The [juvenile] court has been engaged with DOJ since the investigation was opened on August 11, 2009,” said Larry Scroggs, the court’s chief administrative officer and chief council in a written statement, provided in response to a telephone call for comment.

Some changes have already been made, like the creation of a new kind of affidavit to formally inform children and guardians about charges. Others are under discussion between the court and the DOJ, according to Scroggs, who said the goal is a “written agreement that will govern the process of completing remedial measures to bring the court in compliance with all applicable standards.” The document is expected to be in place by this fall, he wrote.

Shelby County Commissioner Henri Brooks first reported issues to the federal agency in 2007, though she traces the problem of mistreatment of black children back to the 1960s.

She accuses the DOJ and the court talks of leaving out the people most affected, “the families of the juveniles” in the system. She said families want to know what the DOJ is going to do about the allegations, especially the ones that touch on race. The county commission happens to be formally absent from the talks as well.

“The county commission has historically rubber-stamped whatever the court has asked for,” Brooks, herself a former employee of the court, admitted. “Now it’s a little bit different and we have a very contentious situation going on here.”

Reforms under discussion, said Scroggs, include speedy probable cause hearings by telephone, asking the county public defender to take over juvenile defense to make it fully independent from the juvenile court administration, stepping up administration of Miranda rights, publishing court forms in Spanish, and considering a safe house or respite center for juveniles to stay upon release if they cannot go back to their homes. Besides that, they are “reviewing and researching statutory and procedural rules and best practices for detention hearings and transfer hearings, aimed at reinforcing juveniles’ due process rights.”

But none of that is a done deal, said Brooks, because “no funds have been allocated for anything.” The commission “doesn’t have a clue” what’s going on between the DOJ and the court, she said.

The juvenile court is operationally autonomous, but mainly depends on county government funding for operations. Brooks thinks adequate representation of children alone would take more staff and cost millions of dollars.

The population of the county juvenile detention center is falling, however. The county juvenile lockup holds 27 children as of Sept. 7, 2012, against an average population over the last two years of 45 to 50 youth. The population has shrunk, Scroggs said, due to two programs. One shifts minor on-campus offenses to a probation-type program housed at school instead of in the court system. The other urges officers to write summons instead of making arrests for seven minor offenses.

The court has an external ally, however. This year, the juvenile court was designated a Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiatives site by Annie E. Casey Foundation. That means the foundation is helping the court reduce unnecessary confinement of youth, improve public safety, reduce racial disparities, save money and stimulate reforms.

The AECF learned about the DOJ investigation after it started working in Shelby County. And the DOJ does not affect what the foundation does anyway, explained Gail Mumford, senior associate with AECF’s Juvenile Justice Strategy Group.

“We’re not there to get them out of that position,” said Mumford, “but we believe by engaging the strategy contained in JDAI they will be positioned to come into full compliance.”

At any JDAI site, workers help stakeholders align what they’re actually doing with what they want to do.

“We’re going to do the work that we generally do,” said Mumford. “We’re just partners to help them [Shelby County] improve the juvenile justice system of delivery.”

The Hidden Culture of Prison Violence

John Last 1

I don’t remember when I first heard of The Angolite, the only uncensored prison publication in the country. It was sometime during the late eighties. Since 1976, prisoners incarcerated at Louisiana’s notorious Angola Prison produced the magazine without censorship. The writers revealed the horrible conditions of the prison, shedding light on sexual slavery, murders and corruption.

The story that I most remember was about the gladiatorial games organized by inmates and supported by guards. Both prisoners and employees gambled extensively on the fights, which often involved weapons and improvised armor. It must have seemed surreal to people in the “free world” to read about this Mad Max–like dystopia, but to me it made perfect sense.

At the time I was at Alto, a hyper-violent youth prison in north Georgia. It was known as gladiator school, and though we didn’t have organized combat, there was a culture among the prisoners and guards supporting the belief that violence was normal. Guards would often turn a blind eye to assaults, robberies and other crimes. At times they would facilitate fights by letting inmates come together to settle their differences by combat.

This kind of violence is still alive and well in the United States. A few days ago The Wall Street Journal reported that the Department of Justice has opened an investigation into the 2008 death of 18-year-old Christopher Robinson. A week after the crime, The Village Voice reported Robinson was left to bleed to death over a 12-hour period after suffering a brutal beating. Last year, two guards pled guilty to running “The Program,” a plan to allow a gang of inmates, known as “The Team,” to extort other prisoners and administer beatings to those who failed to cooperate. A New York Daily News article makes the point that some of the inmates involved received 10-year sentences, while the two guards got “sweetheart” deals of less than two years. Robinson had refused to give the gang his commissary card.

Despite the New York Corrections Department’s assertion that juveniles are safer today because of personnel changes and new safety measures, similar stories continue to come out of the Robert N. Davoren Center where juveniles are held. The Journal reports that at least two lawsuits are moving through the courts brought by the Legal Aid Society, a New York-based not for profit organization.

Attorney Mary Lynee Werlwas is quoted in the Journal as saying, “I know as recently as last week we were getting complaints from inmates. These are people who have never been incarcerated before, and they're giving us the same stories we've heard for five years or more…The hallmark of 'the program' is that corrections officers are deputizing inmates to do their jobs…We've not seen anything change there."

Based on my own experience, I tend to believe the latest reports. Officials will deny wrongdoing and mistreatment, and may in fact be ignorant of it, until irrefutable evidence is brought against them. Then they will promise to make the necessary changes, assure the public that all is well and start the cycle of denial over again. Unfortunately, these places are at the bottom of society and the prisoners are outside the moral sphere of most citizens. That must change.

Grant Works to Prevent Kids’ Exposure to Violence

The U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs and the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention is offering a grant for the Defending Childhood Technical Assistance program. This project provides support to prevent and reduce the effects of kid’s exposure to violence. The deadline for this grant is July 11, 2011 at 11:59 P.M. E.S.T.


Probation Domination

Probation was the most serious verdict in one-third of teen crime in the U.S. In 2007, 1.7 million delinquency cases were handled by courts with juvenile jurisdiction. This has increased 34% over the past three decades. Nearly 60% of the cases were ordered by the court while the remainder agreed to some form of voluntary probation. This is according to a report by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.