While everyone in Alabama is busy debating the Siegelman prosecution, watching the primaries, or just wishing it were football season, the Associated Press has been busy studying the juvenile justice system across the country.
The disturbing results for Alabama's system mirror those from around the country where public safety functions have been outsourced to private industry. The for-profit entities, like most corporations, exist to enrich their shareholders. The prison/detention system is a particular issue: it's almost impossible to get information about conditions, inmate complaints, and employee training in these private facilities. Either government agencies don't even bother to ask, or, the information is protected as a “trade secret.”
What do they have to hide? Quite a bit apparently. Abuse Figures Murky for Juvenile Centers:
According to the survey, more than 13,000 claims of abuse were identified in juvenile correction centers around the country from 2004 through 2007 – a remarkable number, given that there were about 46,000 detainees when the states were surveyed in 2007.
Just 1,343 of those claims of abuse were confirmed by various authorities. Of 1,140 claims of sexual abuse, 143 were confirmed by investigators.
Experts say only a fraction of the allegations are ever confirmed. These are some of the most troubled young people in the country and some will make up stories. But in other cases, the youths are pressured not to report abuse; often, no one believes them anyway.
It gets worse:
In 2004, the U.S. Justice Department uncovered 2,821 allegations of sexual abuse by juvenile correction staffers. The government study included 194 private facilities, which likely accounts for the higher numbers than the AP found.
Unfortunately, the report on Alabama reflects the national findings.
The March 3 issue of the Huntsville Times discussed the AP's Alabama report: Records Shoddy on Privately Run Juvenile Lockups.
Call up Alabama's Department of Yourh Services and staff members can tell you fairly quickly how many claims of assault, sexual abuse, and other violations have been made by young people house in the six youth facilities run by the state.
But the same information is not so readily available for the 26 privately –run facilities that the state agency pays to house youthful offenders. Private detention centers hold about half of the agency's juvenile wards, but DYS says it doesn't routinely keep statistics to show what is going on in those lockups.
The information in the article conflicts somewhat with Alabama's information posted on the “State Juvenile Justice Profiles” site:
Alabama has 14 juvenile detention facilities; 12 are classified as secure and 2 as staff secure. Detention centers are primarily administered by the county executive, but the court and private contractors also administer detention in some counties. Counties fund secure detention with some facilities serving regions of the state.
The AP article refers to “six state-run youth centers.” If we assume that the AP has the most updated information, does that mean the state is closing state-run facilities and placing juveniles in private facilities that operate with almost no oversight? I couldn't find an answer to that.
Allen Peaton, spokesman for DYS, acknowledged that the lack of information about abuse claims is a “problem” and noted that the state require centers to track and report abuse and assault claims “when new contracts are awarded in October.“
Well, since there's no big hurry, there must not be a problem, right? Well. No.
Alabama didn't even begin compiling statistics on the number of deaths while in custody and claims and confirmed cases of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse by staffers until Jan. 1, 2005!
During 2005, there were 67 abuse claims in the six state-run centers. (Note, this number doesn't match the 14 number from the other site.). “That was the only information available” from DYS. In 2006, the state had 3340 juveniles in custody and 1740 held in private facilities.
The potential for abuse is clear, yet the state has displayed an almost breathtaking lack of interest:
“The Justice Department gives us the list that says 'This is what we want information on,' and it's only the DYS-run programs,” DYS executive assistant Marcia Calendar said.
So the state grudgingly tracks information – as little as possible – for Federal government, but not for private facilities. Why not? And why doesn't the DOJ require it either?
Any abuse allegations for private facilities are placed not in a central database, but “into victims' paper files.” When the AP requested statistics from private facilities, DYS told the reporter to contact each facility individually.
Only 15 of 26 facilities responded.
Those responding said they had received a total of 62 complaints of physical, mental, and sexual abuse in the three-year survey period.
How were they resolved? Was anyone fired? What are the long-term effects on the child? Nobody knows, because no government agency – federal, state, or local – cares enough to check right now.
The problem isn't just reporting. This USA Today article has descriptions so graphic and creepy that you may want to skip over them:
Other abuse is physical, and often sadistic. For boys at the Hawaii Youth Correctional Facility, authority came in the person of 50-year-old Gilbert Hicks, and he wielded that authority emphatically.
Hicks was convicted of sexual assault in October 2005 after he “grabbed, squeezed and twisted” a boy's testicles, according to a federal lawsuit.
When the boy sought medical attention 10 days later because of pain and swelling, Hicks, who had worked at the facility for 24 years, taunted him by asking: “What, you want me to squeeze your (genitals) again?” Hicks allegedly abused two other boys the same way.
His sentence? Five years probation and 90 days in jail to be served on weekends.
What sets the case apart from many others is the successful conviction. Often such cases come down to the word of a guard against that of a teenager with a long criminal record, the primary reason that so few charges of abuse are confirmed and prosecuted, child advocates say.
—– snip —–
But a 15-year-old girl on suicide watch at Columbia Training School used a toe nail and the sharpened cap off a tube of toothpaste to carve the words “HATE ME” backward in her forearm. The girl also said she was shackled 12 hours a day, and forced to wear leg restraints to classes, meals and other activities.
Another 15-year-old girl who spent time in Columbia told the AP she was twice groped by a male guard. She said she reported the abuse.
“They told me I was lying,” she said with tears streaming down her face.
“They told me that I was wrong for reporting it, that I shouldn't have brought it up.”
Yes,the system is overcrowded and underfunded, but must it be dangerous for the children as well? We aren't talking about violent teenage predators here! Voices for Alabama's Children, a state child advocacy organization, reports that only 9% of juveniles are detained for violent offenses.
In fact, DYS is so flooded with low risk children that young people who are committed to DYS are often placed on a “waiting list” for admission to state custody. Waitlisted children may languish for weeks or months in juvenile detention centers, where they are confined in small concrete rooms that look and feel like adult prison cells.
VAC calls the juvenile detention system the “hidden closet” of the juvenile justice system.
Detention centers are primarily used to confine children who are awaiting trial, but there is nothing childlike about these facilities – they look and feel like high security adult prisons. Children live in tiny concrete cells with solid or barred doors. Each cell has a metal commode and sink. Young people sleep on concrete shelves covered with a thin mattress. In overcrowded facilities, children sleep on the floor.
And these are state run centers. What goes on in the “hidden closets” of private facilities? Maybe some are better and they have innovative operating and rehabilitation programs.
Or maybe they're just warehouses when non-violent children are held in prison-like conditions – only to emerge as the violent criminals the juvenile system hoped to avoid.
Again, from VAC:
Juvenile detention is not just dead time for children – it may also be the best crime school in the state. Research indicates that the experience of incarceration is the single greatest predictor for future recidivism. Children in detention gravitate toward the worst possible role models and often return home even more likely to break the law.
“If you put at-risk kids in detention, you increase the possibility they will re-offend.” — Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb, Supreme Court of Alabama
The problems the state is willing to look away from now won't go away. They'll just grow up and move into our communities. And if we look away and do nothing, then we're part of the problem too.
Out of sight, out of mind only works as long as you keep the problem locked away. We'll eventually have to deal with it, and shouldn't we get control of this situation now, while we still have a chance to help these kids become responsible adults and not tomorrow's child abusers, burglars, and carjackers?
I'd like to see our state legislators deal with this issue and Congressional representatives too. It would be a nice change from fist-fights in Montgomery and baseball hearings in DC.