When I first came home from serving a very long prison sentence, my greatest concern was how deeply that dreary place affected me mentally. Of course, I thought I was normal, but I was uncertain because of the toll I had witnessed the cruel environment take on so many men.
I have reached the conclusion, based on my 15-year imprisonment from age 20 to 35, that many incarcerated persons develop mental illness because of the subhuman conditions they are held captive in.
By now many of us know the numbers and have read statistic after statistic that attempt to explain how mental illness runs rampant throughout U.S. prisons. In 2006, the U.S. Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Statistics showed that 64 percent of local jail inmates, 56 percent of state prisoners and 45 percent of federal prisoners have symptoms of serious mental illnesses. In 2015 The Atlantic reported 55 percent of male inmates in state prisons are mentally ill, and the numbers goes on and on.
What’s always interesting to me is that most people assume that the men and women in prison who are mentally ill arrived there with some form of pre-existing mental condition, attributing these numbers to inadequate health care and disgraceful treatment of those with mental illness. While that may be true in some cases, what most people on the outside don’t understand is how the dismal, subhuman prison environment can literally drive you crazy. The inhumane conditions are intentionally designed to sedate the mind, dull the senses and pacify prisoners into a comatose state.
One of the damnedest challenges surviving prison as a whole person is the relentless battle to maintain your sanity in a cold, grey concrete and steel sensory deprivation chamber. A chamber filled with people who could not care less if you lived or died: people convicted of being thieves, rapists, killers, white supremacists, black nationalists, child molesters, pimps, meth-heads, crackheads, dope fiends, prostitutes, scheming and conniving con men and a wild, lawless, heartless, fatherless, desensitized, lost generation of young men.
These dungeons, labeled “correctional facilities,” are supposed to “rehabilitate” convicted persons and prepare them to return to society. They are designed to break you. How, under these extreme circumstances, do we expect a person to maintain their sanity? If we dull an incarcerated person’s senses in order to control the situation, how on earth can we expect anyone to come out whole?
And then there’s segregation: a prison within a prison. It is its own monster, and the intense isolation can drive a person to the brink of their sanity. I was once forced to spend 30 days in an isolation chamber in segregation in a maximum-security prison. It was sealed with a steel door so heavy it trapped the air inside and was so soundproof that I might as well have been deaf. When the 30 days ended and the prison guards opened my isolation chamber, the stale, dank air that rushed into my cell from the gallery was so refreshing that the breeze smelling like paint and steel had the audacity to be caressing. All sounds, smells and light hit me at the same time, giving me a sensory overload so strong it made me dizzy and nauseated.
This is not rehabilitation. This is torture. And this subhuman treatment is happening in prisons across the United States. How much of this inhumane treatment can a sane person take before it begins to affect him mentally and emotionally?
Truthfully, because of how intricately prisons are designed for sensory deprivation, I believe that the very environment itself causes great depression that leads to other mental issues. There is much talk and a movement toward reform, but how can an institution designed for punishment be reformed when its entire infrastructure is intended to depress the mind and dull the senses?
If our goal as a decent society is to rehabilitate, then we must oblige our elected officials to abandon lazy, twisted and medieval imprisonment practices. They must be urged to review the humane 21st-century ideas that greatly reduce the number of people with mental illness the physical prison environment produces.
Having paid their debt to society, people, many of whom are family members, are reentering our communities needing a real opportunity to be productive. However, they tremendously struggle to do so because their mental faculties have been intentionally aggravated by being forced to survive in a high-stress, abnormal world devoid of human sensitivity. Prisons, as they currently exist, must be abolished.
Omar Yamini is the executive director of Determined to Be Upright, a nonprofit that helps youth identify and deflect harmful influences. His book is “What's Wrong With You! What You, Your Children and Our Students Need to Know About: My 15 Year Imprisonment from Age 20-35.”
Youth placed in juvenile justice institutions face a fundamental obstacle in their career pathway: They have been removed from their communities and lack access to the full array of educational and job opportunities available to their peers. Accordingly, the best long-term solution to the many barriers to career success “disconnected” youth face is to keep them out of the juvenile justice system entirely — and, in particular, out of juvenile detention and correctional institutions.
Indeed, although the goal underlying the juvenile justice system is rehabilitation — meaning that when youth leave the system they will be better off than when they entered, ready to gain employment and be contributing members to society — most juvenile facilities do little to prepare youth for adulthood and fail to properly treat the issues contributing to problematic behaviors.
In particular, many facilities are ill-equipped to provide appropriate treatment for the roughly 75 percent of youth in their care who were previously victims of violent trauma. Without treatment, this trauma can manifest as behavioral health conditions, mental illness and substance abuse, all of which are present at rates two to three times more for children in the juvenile justice system. Moreover, the poor conditions in juvenile facilities can often exacerbate these conditions, leading to further mental health problems. These issues are not new, but any proper response requires a thoughtful systemwide effort.
That’s exactly what Bob Listenbee plans to achieve. Previously serving as chief of the Juvenile Unit of the Defender Association of Philadelphia for 16 years, Listenbee was later appointed by President Barack Obama as administrator of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP). Now, back in Philadelphia as a fellow with the Stoneleigh Foundation, Listenbee hopes to build bridges between the various justice system players to create a comprehensive support system for youth. He recently shared some of his innovative ideas with us.
Under Listenbee’s leadership, OJJDP issued a report finding that trauma will continue to manifest and disrupt a youth’s educational and emotional development until properly addressed. The report emphasized the implementation of “trauma-informed care,” a systemwide approach that recognizes the unique needs of youth who have experienced trauma during childhood. To effectively address trauma, ensuring it does not contribute to later involvement in the justice system, immediate intervention is necessary. Programs that provide counseling and support to young people experiencing domestic violence or gang violence at the moment of the impact have been proven effective.
Too often, trauma left untreated can manifest into involvement in the justice system. Rather than criminalizing the behaviors and incarcerating young people, further exacerbating the trauma they experience, effective programs divert young people out of the justice system and into treatment programs. When youth require more supervision than just treatment, we must make sure systems provide adequate treatment programs that are individualized to meet the youth’s needs.
In contrast, if trauma is left unaddressed, youth are unlikely to fully benefit from other rehabilitation programs such as job training and internships. Because of this, trauma-informed care must be included alongside other career programming so that youth can begin properly preparing gainful employment upon release. If trauma-informed care and job training are implemented successfully, our juvenile justice system can become a real instrument for positive change and rehabilitation.
Listenbee has repeatedly emphasized that just having the answers isn’t enough. The real challenge is implementing these changes across the country so we can start healing our youth as fast as possible. Addressing the root causes of incarceration will give “disconnected” youth the best chance to reach their potential and achieve their career goals.
At Juvenile Law Center, we agree that this approach will best serve not only young people but also their greater communities. We recommend it as a practice for all who are seriously interested in tackling issues of youth employment with system-involved kids.
Patrick Took is a legal intern at the Juvenile Law Center.
This is one in a series of blog posts from the Juvenile Law Center on career pathways and barriers for system-involved youth. It has been slightly edited and is reposted with permission. See the original and full series here.
The family of 19-year-old Ashley Smith says guards watched and did nothing as the young woman strangled herself to death in an Ontario prison cell. Smith spent her teen years in and out of juvenile custody and, once in the adult system, had her mental illness answered by physical abuse, her family alleges in a legal battle to find out more about their daughter’s death. For youth incarcerated in the United States, the mental care they get — or don’t — varies.
“In some places, all of this is really done quite well,” said Preston Elrod, a professor in the Department of Criminal Justice at Eastern Kentucky University and a juvenile justice specialist. “But in other places, none of it is done well.”
About 70 percent of young people who come into an institution have a diagnosable mental health disorder or symptoms of one, according to Gina Vincent, a psychiatry professor from the University of Massachusetts Medical School, in a 2012 report about screening and assessment in juvenile justice systems.
Rules vary by state, though in many places, children will not stay in the juvenile detention system, receiving what juvenile-tailored services exist, as long as Smith did: her 18th birthday. New York, for example, treats all defendants aged 16 and older as adults, no matter the offense.
“A large percentage of young people that come into institutions are experiencing things like anxiety and depression. Acute depression is particularly problematic for girls,” said Elrod.
Nationwide, about a dozen young people died every year from 2002 to 2005 in state juvenile correctional facilities, according to the latest available federal statistics. Most were aged 16 or 17, and nearly half died by their own hand.
One way to make psychiatric diagnoses of young people is to employ psychologists at all points of entry into the justice system, including probation offices, detention facilities and child welfare agencies, wrote Vincent.
“The problem with this approach is that it would be extremely costly given that approximately two million youth are arrested each year, of which more than 600,000 are processed through juvenile detention centers,” she continued.
“It’s a system that has never been appropriately resourced,” said Elrod.
Back in Canada, Howard Sapers, Correctional Investigator of Canada, saw videos of Smith in the months before her 2007 suicide. “There are 160 use-of-force incidents over the 11 and a half months Ashley Smith was in [adult] federal custody,” he told TV show "Question Period."
A pair of videos made public in the Smith court case show the woman, apparently calm, being strapped into an airplane seat with duct tape. In another, a prostrate Smith is drugged against her will.
Her suicide prompted Sapers’ department to look at deaths in custody, where they saw “sadly similar” patterns to the Smith case. In a 2011 report, he advised tailoring policies for mentally ill inmates.
Since then, he said, there have been some good hires and good training on the part of the Correctional Service of Canada. “But some of the lessons learned have been ignored.”
A coroner’s inquest into Smith’s death is ongoing.
I was asked this past week to visit the North Carolina General Assembly and speak to legislators about effective juvenile justice practices -- what works and what doesn’t work. Like Georgia and most states, North Carolina too was hit hard by the economy and is making hard decisions to cut programs — the state is 3.6 billion in the hole. The irony of budgeting in a fiscal crisis is that it forces policymakers to scrutinize the way things have always been done. When you have to cut, the question is what to cut and hopefully the less effective programs are cut and replaced by more effective and cost efficient alternatives.
Our discussions in North Carolina focused on what works and what doesn’t work -- and typically what works is more cost effective. What doesn’t work is less effective and more expensive to the taxpayer --incarceration of kids in most circumstances is ineffective.
I was joined later in the day by a juvenile judge from Halifax County, N.C. named Brenda Branch. Judge Branch shared her practical and common-sense approach to treating juveniles -- kids should be treated like kids! This point was emphasized when I asked the audience, “How many of you did some type of delinquent act when you were a teenager?” Most raised their hands with laughter.
Judge Branch followed-up and told the group that persons with authority over kids should recall their own teenage years when deciding how to respond to kids who made stupid decisions. Together, we challenged the audience to question if our desire to change a child is driven by a need to change something in ourselves. Is it possible that our attempt to address youth violence by treating them as adults is a reaction driven by our anger as opposed to the needs of kids? After all, the research strongly refutes the effectiveness of automatic transfer laws to adult court.
Policy making too often is a response to events we can’t explain. When this occurs, legislators tend to react with emotion, not objective data. Take, for example, the case of 8-year-old Amy Yates found strangled near her home in Carrollton, Ga., in 2004. We were all shocked to hear that a 12-year-old boy named Jonathon confessed to the murder. Jonathon would later recant his confession claiming that after hours of interrogation he wanted to go home. After asking for his mom and dad -- and after being told no -- he told his interrogators he was with Amy in the woods playing a game and ran into her by accident causing her to fall down a ditch.
The ditch sealed it for the police. Amy’s body was found in a ditch. The police claimed the location of Amy’s body was known only to the killer -- they had not released this fact to the public. Jonathon entered an Alford plea -- a plea that allows a defendant to admit only that the state can prove their case while denying his guilt.
Jonathon was committed to the Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) for the maximum time allowed --two years. If Jonathon were 13, he would go to adult court. A kid under 12 charged in juvenile court and commitment to the state for no more than two years (unless extended on motion by the state for another two years) is the most a judge can do under such circumstances. Still and all, DJJ decides the placement, which can include home.
Amy’s father was angry. He left the courtroom vowing to change the laws. He could not fathom how someone can commit such an atrocious act against a sweet little girl and be free after two years. Mr. Yates’ crusade led him to state Sen. Bill Hamrick from Carrollton, Ga.
I recall when Sen. Hamrick joined Mr. Yates’ crusade. He called for reform in the juvenile justice system -- beginning with the tougher handling of 12-year-old murderers. This “tougher” approach included lowering the minimum age of the “seven deadly sins” law -- automatic transfer to adult court -- from 13 to no minimum age in cases involving murder.
I was besieged with calls from colleagues on and off the bench when Sen. Hamrick’s comments made the news. The callers queried how anger directed at one person -- a 12-year-old boy -- could drive a change in policy?
I told my colleagues and friends that the anger was not the problem -- the anger was appropriate. Jonathan killed a little girl. We are supposed to get angry when someone is murdered. It is a natural and God-given trait. It’s what we do with our anger that is the issue. Paradoxically, what is a natural trait may — by our misguided thinking -- produce an inappropriate and unnatural outcome.
Removing the minimum age for treatment in adult court in cases involving murder presupposes that all such children cannot be rehabilitated and should be locked away for life. Consider that only 10 percent of all murders each year are committed by juveniles -- and most of them are 15 or older. Many of those under 15 were charged as a party to a crime, and were not necessarily the killer. Most of us in this juvenile justice field -- if we stay in tune with the research -- know that “murders by the very young” are rare. (Bilchik, S, Juvenile Justice Bulletin, 1999). Annually between the years of 1980 and 1997, fewer than 10 juveniles age 10 and younger were identified as participants in murders (and I emphasize “participate”). These numbers have dropped along with the rate of juvenile violent crime which is now at an all time low.
Several of my colleagues -- knowing these statistics -- asked out loud, “Really. We are going to change the law to treat the very young as adults based on a case that may not happen in Georgia for, say, another 25 or more years?”
But the distress displayed by several judges, defenders and advocates was not only statistical. The idea of sending kids at any age under 13 to adult court to face life in prison assailed the fundamental precepts of a civil society -- to abrogate essential concepts such as mental competency and protecting children from emotional and physical harm -- even when they have harmed others.
The previous columns on this subject have addressed adolescent brain research. We should all know by now that youth, especially the Jonathon’s and younger, are under neurological construction and are prone to make very poor choices -- sometimes not fully appreciating the results of their actions. This is a good juncture to remind ourselves of Dr. Jay Giedd’s comments that being under neurological construction means youth generally can still be neurologically re-wired to behave and do well. Do we really want to forsake this medical and behavioral fact in a moment of anger?
Consider that case reports and studies of juvenile homicide offenders reveal positive treatment outcomes and low recidivism rates. (Cormier & Markus, 1980; Gardiner, 1985; Hellsten & Katila, 1965, and Toupin, 1993). This should not be surprising since recidivism among adult homicide offenders is relatively low in comparison to adult offenders. Given the better opportunities for neurological re-wiring for youth it would follow that recidivism among juvenile homicide offenders would be much lower. In fact, these studies reveal that juvenile homicide offenders -- like the adult studies -- have lower recidivist rates than juvenile offenders. (Toupin, 1993).
Competency to stand trial requires the child to possess “sufficient present ability to consult with his attorney with a reasonable degree of understanding and a rational as well as factual understanding of the proceedings against him.” Dusky v. United States 362 U.S. 402, 1960. In his landmark studies of juveniles and their competency to stand trial, Dr. Thomas Grisso evaluated the ability of juveniles to respond to a series of questions concerning their ability to apply the Miranda warning to hypothetical situations. The juveniles under the age of 17, in comparison to adults, showed significant gaps in their understanding of the warning, especially with regards to the right to remain silent. The study reveals a greater lack of understanding for juveniles under age 15. (Grisso, Juveniles’ Waiver of Rights: Legal and Psychological Competence)
In the grand scheme of things, it simply comes down to a very simple thought -- probably so simple it is often overlooked -- and I will quote Dewey Cornell, a clinical researcher, who put it this way in his article “Child and Adolescent Homicid,”: “It is difficult to distinguish when the poor judgment of a nervous, immature adolescent should be regarded as competent in such a momentous matter as to deciding to confess to murder.” (Dewey, from the Handbook of Psychological Approaches with Violent Criminal Offenders: Contemporary Strategies and Issues. Kluwer Academic, New York. Eds. Vincent B Van Hasselt and Michel Hersen).
Let’s put this “simple thought” into perspective -- by looking at it from the perspective of -- let’s say a 12- year-old boy such as Jonathon. Dr. Grisso’s uncontroverted research reveals that most juveniles detained for a crime will waive their Miranda rights and make a statement to the police (Grisso, 1981). Grisso further points out that even when parents are available to the juvenile, most will assume a passive role or encourage the juvenile to give a statement (Grisso, 1981). The research has shown that with “prolonged questioning, many juveniles can be prodded, cajoled or beguiled into giving police incriminating statements” (Dewey, 1999).
Speaking of Jonathon’s perspective, let me tell you -- using the words of Paul Harvey -- “the rest of the story.” Jonathan, after about two years removed from his home for a crime he confessed and later recanted claiming he did so because he wanted to go home, was released when a 19-year-old mentally disabled youth named Chris Gossett admitted that he killed Amy (Chris was 16 at the time of Amy’s murder).
Chris told police that Amy rode her bike to the Gossett’s to deliver a birthday invitation. She met up with Chris and he lured her into the nearby woods. When asked why, Chris said it was for sex. Chris said he tried to remove Amy’s pants, which would explain why her pants were unzipped and opened but not pulled down. He also described how he sat on Amy’s chest to keep her from screaming. At the time, Chris weighted 280 pounds. Amy’s chest had massive bruising. Jonathan weighed only 100 pounds---not enough to cause such bruising.
Lastly, Chris shared how he took Amy’s notebook and tossed it. The police found it a short distance away from Amy’s body. Not even the Yates knew that Amy’s notebook had been found. In fact, they were never shared any of these details about Amy’s death. Mr. Yates saw the taped confession of Chris. How could Chris have known these details? Mr. Yates was convinced he had persecuted the wrong person --and a 12-year-old at that! Mr. Yates pursued another crusade -- to free Jonathan. He succeeded.
Mr. Yates other crusade -- to change the law -- was successful too. Today it is called “Amy’s Law.” To bring it full circle, I must re-introduce Sen. Hamrick. He sponsored “Amy’s Law,” but thanks to the open mindedness, common sense, and intellect of the good senator, “Amy’s Law” does not transfer kids under 13 for murder to adult court. In fact, Sen. Hamrick resisted placing it in the category of designated felonies in which judges can place kids in secure confinement for 1-5 years. Instead, Sen. Hamrick sought counsel and advice from the experts and formed his own opinion -- he convinced his legislative colleagues to change OCGA 15-11-70 to give juvenile judge’s discretion to commit youth under 13 years of age adjudicated on murder to the Department of Juvenile Justice until age 21 with the authority to release the youth upon a showing of rehabilitation.
We often experience how bad facts make bad law. The murder of Amy Yates is a case of bad facts that was on a road to becoming a bad law. Sen. Hamrick changed the direction of “Amy’s Law” so that the next time a kid 12 and under commits murder -- and really did it -- he will be treated with an eye for rehabilitation instead of an eye for an eye.
Aristotle said it best -- “Anyone can become angry -- that is easy. But to be angry at the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way -- this is not easy.”
Sen. Hamrick took the road less traveled -- he drafted a law that will benefit and not hurt children. He put aside his anger and listened to the facts.