In Florida, a three-hundred-pound guard crushed a twelve-year old boy with his body, suffocating the sixty-five-pound child to death.
In California, groups of correctional officers slammed handcuffed boys face-first into walls or set attack dogs on them, often in full view of security cameras.
In Louisiana, guards assaulted sleeping children, or entertained themselves by pitting boys in fights against each other, leaving them with broken jaws, fractured eye sockets, and an array of other injuries.
In New York, children were restrained with such force that they wound up with concussions, missing teeth, spiral fractures, and other injuries. While physical restraint is intended only for situations where a young person poses a danger, these harsh examples were sometimes the result of affronts as minor as taking an extra cookie or laughing against orders. “Workers forced one boy, who had glared at a staff member, into a sitting position and secured his arms behind his back with such force that his collarbone was broken.”
In Georgia, guards assaulted children who were anemic, injured, mentally disabled, and as young as nine. When one boy collapsed during a punishing exercise regime, a supervisor broke his arm. A boy who talked in line was punched in the ear so hard that his eardrum was punctured.
In Mississippi, guards ripped the clothing from suicidal girls, then hog-tied them, naked, and tossed them into solitary. They also shackled girls to poles and forced them to run in hot weather carrying logs. Those who threw up from the heat and the strain were forced to eat their own vomit.
In Arkansas, young people were left naked in solitary with the air-conditioning turned on high, or hog-tied and set outside at night in freezing weather.
According to a 2008 investigation by the Associated Press, thirteen thousand formal abuse claims were reported between 2004 and 2007 by state-run juvenile facilities nationwide. “Of these, 1,343 instances of abuse had been officially confirmed by authorities. Countless more claims had never been investigated properly, or never filed in the first place due to lack of information or functioning grievance systems, and/or the fear of retribution.”
In the absence of a consistent reporting mechanism, the best source of information about abuse behind bars often comes from litigation initiated by family members, advocacy groups, or the U.S. Department of Justice. The federal entity charged with enforcing the Eighth Amendment (which forbids cruel and unusual punishment), the Department of Justice is responsible for investigating allegations of abuse behind bars and can sue those jurisdictions in which abuse is egregious enough to test constitutional limits.
A 2011 report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation includes an overview of successful civil rights suits across the country. Abuse is pervasive throughout the nation’s juvenile facilities, author Richard Mendel concludes, with documentation of “systemic violence, abuse, and/or excessive use of isolation or restraints” in thirty-nine states plus Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico, going back to 1970.
In each of these instances, “states have been identified not for one or a handful of isolated events, but for a sustained pattern of maltreatment,” according to the Casey report. Fifty-seven lawsuits, many brought by the Department of Justice, have turned up enough evidence of violence, abuse, and other violations to require court-imposed remediation. The thousands upon thousands of pages of documentation that result from these myriad investigations leave little question that the punishment doled out inside our nation’s juvenile prisons is cruel. But as evidence of widespread abuse turns up in state upon state, decade after decade, it becomes increasingly difficult to view it as “unusual.”
In New York, a supervisor with that state ‘s Office of Children and Family Services, which oversees both the delinquency and dependency systems, said young people sometimes returned from upstate juvenile facilities with bruises, contusions, or even broken bones. Each time, she would pick up the phone and report these instances of alleged child abuse to a branch of the same agency suspected of inflicting them. Only a handful of states, it turns out, have not been determined to have systematically brutalized the youth in their care. A review of all fifty states found only eight where there was not conclusive evidence of system-wide mistreatment.
Reading the results of Department of Justice investigations or class action lawsuits—catalogues of brutality running on for pages—is a painful experience. But there is also something bracing about the bald exposure of abuses behind bars. Surely, one imagines, once these horrors are exposed both in the press and at the highest levels of our legal system, something will be done about them. Reforms will be instituted, the children made safe.
Those who author reports on abuse in juvenile prisons tend to foster this reformist faith, ending the most chilling investigation with an optimistic list of suggested reforms. The language ranges from academic to outraged to crisply legalistic, depending on the authors, but the recommendations themselves are generally quite similar: conduct further inquiries, form new committees, consult experts, draft protocols, hold trainings, and the like. Beneath these procedural suggestions lies a single mandate: quit beating up the children.
Federal law and a number of court decisions have made it clear that incarcerated youth do not forfeit their human rights along with their liberty. Yet as lawsuit follows lawsuit and consent decrees pile up, abuse remains endemic to our nation’s juvenile prisons. It has persisted for decades, despite investigations, expos.s, admonitions, and court orders; despite public displays of outrage and official commitments to change.
No matter how vehemently we profess ourselves “scandalized” when another investigation brings new abuses to light, the seemingly gratuitous cruelty of captor toward captive is so widespread, and so long-standing despite multiple reform efforts, that it raises a troubling question: is it even possible to eradicate the abuses that occur with such regularity when large numbers of vulnerable young people are held captive far from the public eye? Or is there something inherent to this particular structure that makes such abuses inevitable?
From “chemical restraints” to shield-bearing “extraction teams” to age-old tools like the fist and the boot, today’s incarcerated youth face a range of mechanisms of assault that taxes the imagination. The restraint chair, for example, may sound like an artifact from a medieval dungeon, but it is used in juvenile facilities to this day.
Ricardo spent twenty-one months in a Massachusetts Department of Youth Services facility. There, he was strapped into the device—a high-backed, padded contraption fitted out with belts, cuffs, and similar devices—in order, he was told, to address his “anger problems.”
“They put you in a fucking room by yourself with the chair in the middle . . . a big-ass room with one chair, and you are strapped down to it. . . . They strap you down and sit you like this”—Ricardo stooped to demonstrate the pinioned position that seemed to be imprinted in his muscle memory—”and you have to sit there for five to six hours by yourself.”
“They strap you down,” he repeated, his voice rising with a fury the passage of time seemed not to have diminished.
Copyright 2014 by Nell Bernstein. The excerpt originally appeared in Burning Down the House: The End of Juvenile Prison published by The New Press here with permission.