How the juvenile detention crisis is ‘cruel and unusual’

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In Texas, children and adolescents in the juvenile justice system are regularly locked up in cells for all but 30 minutes a day, and nearly half are on suicide watch.

This week, the director of the Texas Juvenile Justice Department, the agency responsible for the state’s five juvenile prisons, told lawmakers the system was on the verge of collapse. The hearing took place a week after the Texas Tribune revealed how dire the situation is for the nearly 600 young people in custody. Several young people said they have to use water bottles as makeshift toilets on weekends because there are not enough staff to take them to the bathroom.

The Tribune tells the heartbreaking story of a teenager named Keith, whose isolation and desperation in detention led him to many self-harm attempts, requiring hospitalization and surgery at least 12 times. Her mother told reporters: “My phone is ringing and I’m scared to answer it because I’m scared they’ll tell me [Keith] did not succeed this time.

In many cases, the only way for young people to receive attention or simply get out of their cells is to create a crisis, the department’s acting executive director, Shandra Carter, told a meeting of the agency in June. “They self-harm because they can go to the clinic and the infirmary to have contact,” she said.

The agency is under federal investigation following allegations of abuse and neglect. Last month, its officials new admissions suspended.

Officials blame chronic underfunding and a staffing crisis compounded by a tight labor market. Last year, the starting salary for detention officers was approximately $36,200, and these positions experienced a turnover rate of over 70%. A permanent salary increase of 15% was adopted last month.

Next door in Louisiana, officials are also facing a crisis, after a series of escapes and reports of violence at the Bridge City Center for Youth near New Orleans. In response, Governor John Bel Edwards announced that the state would temporarily transfer some of the youths to the infamous Louisiana State Prison in Angola. A lawyer called the move “probably the worst juvenile justice policy decision ever made in modern times.”

Facing staffing issues similar to those in Texas and Louisiana relaxed its hiring practices in juvenile detention this week. Now applicants who fail a sexual abuse test can still be hired, provided they are first assessed by a psychologist.

Also this week, a state juvenile justice official suggested that prosecutors should consider charging more teenagers with adult crimes, because teenagers “may not be suitable” for the youth system.

Earlier this year, a Marshall Project investigation found that dozens of youths had been held in brutal conditions of isolation and deprivation at a quietly opened facility in St. Martinville, Louisiana. The report led to a new state law limiting youth solitary confinement.

In a deep historical dive for The Advocate, Jacqueline DeRobertis explains how the Louisiana system got to this point, placing most of the blame on the half-hearted implementation of a long-promised therapeutic model for juvenile justice. “There’s still a part of the culture that thinks when kids are in trouble they should be locked up,” a former state Supreme Court justice said.

Louisiana incarcerates far fewer young people than before, sixfold from 2001 to 2020, but those locked up remain disproportionately black. It’s a nationwide trend, and it persists in places with large black populations, like Louisiana, and places with much smaller populations, like Scott County in Iowa. The nation has this report on how racial disparities in this county the incarceration of young people feed part of the debate on whether the city should use federal COVID-19 relief money to build a new juvenile detention center. Black youth there are 8.7 times more likely to be incarcerated than their white peers. In Louisiana it’s about six times more, and nationally about four times, all according to data from The Sentencing Project.

In the meantime, since this summer, there are no incarcerated girls in the state of Hawaii. The number of boys incarcerated in the state is also down significantly. Officials there pin the milestone on a commitment to the kind of therapeutic approach that Louisiana has not adopted. Yet racial disparities — in this case, the overrepresentation of native Hawaiians — persist amid the cuts.

Finally, it is not because vulnerable young people are not detained in a detention center that they receive appropriate care. In Detroit last month, a residential treatment center for young people was closed after reports of abuse, including that “a young patient was bitten, choked and induced to commit suicide”, according to documents obtained by the Detroit Free Press. The facility, which was privately operated by a Tennessee corporation, housed youth “who might otherwise end up in juvenile detention.”

In a statement, the company said it had helped thousands of people “through serious mental health and addiction issues”, and blamed the rise in disturbing incidents on “high-risk patients” they were forced to accept.

A mother said children like her son, who has both developmental disabilities and mental health issues, ‘just get thrown into these awful places’.


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