Killing Childhood: Rampant Abuse of Children in America’s Juvenile Detention System

PHILADELPHIA, PA -It is universally recognized that children occupy a special class in our society. They should be protected from all forms of abuse, yet we purposefully place them in abusive situations by the hundreds of thousands every year.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child requires detaining children on Juvenile or criminal charges to be a last resort, however, too often law enforcement make an arrest the first choice even when there are clear alternatives.

According to Campaign for Youth Justice 70,000 kids are held in some sort of residential facilities such as a juvenile detention center, corrections facility or residential home. Each day more than 20,000 kids are detained in America, 83 percent of them are locked up in a “secure” facility.

These facilities are intended to temporarily house, kids that are likely to commit another crime or miss their court dates. It’s believed that a vast majority of these kids don’t meet the standards for detention with at least two-thirds of these children are committed for nonviolent offenses.

Not only do we place children in juvenile detention centers with other at-risk children under inadequate supervision but in most states, children are placed in adult facilities as well, placing them at even greater risk of victimization. On any given night 10,000 children are being held in adult corrections facilities.

Every year an estimated 250,000 children are tried, sentenced or incarcerated as adults, most for nonviolent offenses.

The risk of abuse for children in the Criminal Justice system has long been known to researchers for several decades. Sociologists in the 1970’s point out that the younger the inmate the higher the likelihood of victimization.

In hearings for the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003, experts testified before Congress that children housed in adult facilities were five times as likely to be sexually assaulted as they were in juvenile facilities where 12 percent of respondents surveyed said they had been sexually victimized.

Children housed with adults were also 36 times more likely to commit suicide. A high price for a cry for help from those we are supposed to protect and nurture.

In some parts of the country, 80 percent of the girls who enter the criminal justice system have been sexually abused. Sexual abuse is a primary indicator that a girl will end up being incarcerated. Other forms of prior abuse are also a primary indicator of a child’s likelihood of incarceration.

According to a January 2007 report by the National Council on Crime and Delinquency titled “And Justice for Some,” race and poverty levels are also major indicators of the likelihood of incarceration and who will be prosecuted in the adult criminal justice system.

Poor black children are more likely than their white counterpart to be arrested and far less likely to have their charges dismissed despite making up a much smaller percentage of the population.

Research shows that white children commit “offenses” at the same rate as black children but black children were thought more adult-like, so tended to be treated with less consideration for their age compared to their counterparts.

Instead of helping these children overcome the trauma and obstacles they have already faced and may continue to face in their communities, the juvenile justice system blames the victims and adds to the trauma by placing them in institutions where many of these issues will intensify.

“These institutions are dangerous, ineffective, obsolete, wasteful and inadequate,” said Richard Mendel in a 2011 report titled No Place for Kids.

In at least 29 states, both state-run and private juvenile facilities such as those run by Correctional Services Corp. or Youth Services International, medical neglect, unsanitary conditions, physical, sexual and emotional or psychological abuses are listed as being widespread and substantial.

Despite the best efforts of states that have attempted to reform their systems in its current form, those efforts have proven completely inadequate. “History makes clear that any facility where a large number of individuals are confined against their will, shut off from the wider world and are utterly beholden to their keepers, is prone to maltreatment,” said Richard Mendel.

In nearly every state where abuse was found excessive force and the use of prolonged solitary confinement was pervasive.

The Department of Justice found during an investigation into the conditions of New York State juvenile facilities that staff had “routinely used uncontrolled and unsafe application of force, leading to an extremely high number of serious injuries that included concussions, broken or knocked out teeth and spiral fractures.”

It also found that Rikers Island’s Main One was so understaffed that corrections officers had made arrangements with older, more violent inmates to oversee the dorm, leading to high rates of extortion, assaults and other forms of violence among inmates.

The overuse of solitary confinement has been found to be widespread in nearly every state. Solitary confinement, even among adult inmates is widely recognized as a form of torture, particularly when confinement is for a long period of time.

Solitary confinement cell in a Juvenile Detention Facility.

According to the John Howard Association of Illinois, a correctional reform advocacy group found that youth facilities in the state held children in disciplinary lock up for a minimum of three weeks and can be held for months at a time.

These disciplinary lock ups had the children confined in their cells 23 hours a day, with an hour in a 12 by 20 cage. In one facility 1,170 children were placed in solitary confinement during a one year period.

Conditions in these units have children in cells with no natural light, doors with only a small 6 to 8 in square window and a small porthole which they receive their food and can be handcuffed.

Children are handcuffed and shackled every time they leave their cells, even if they remain in a secured area. They shower in an area with a secure gate.

They are not permitted contact visits with their parents or family, instead, visits are held via a phone, with a Plexiglas window.

Not surprisingly, these conditions can lead to a whole host of anger and anxiety issues in these children. Many act-out cursing at corrections officers, flooding their cells or other acts of noncompliance or even suicide attempts.

The effects of long-term solitary confinement can last for years without proper treatment in some cases for the rest of the victim’s life.

Given the widespread, systemic and devastating nature of the child abuse that occurs within the juvenile justice system and the conviction that our children occupy a special place in society, that they need and deserve special protection, it is time for us to put our money where our mouth is.

We can either continue to violate our children’s humanity and allow their abuse to continue or we can stop taking children from their communities and start investing in the communities they live, in their schools, in their families and ultimately them.