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Locked Up Too Tight

It's Harder to Prevent Abuse in Prisons Like These

By Vincent Schiraldi and Mark Soler
Sunday, September 19, 2004; Page B05

Guards moved young inmates around the prison on a leash. To control youths who disobeyed orders, guards would sometimes don riot gear and use "pepper spray" -- tear gas mixed with cayenne pepper. At other times, groups of guards surrounded young inmates and handcuffed them by their wrists and ankles to the four corners of their beds. Young prisoners were held in isolation cells for weeks at a time. This mistreatment went on for more than a year, occurred regularly in the lockdown area of the prison, and involved more than 100 young people.

This abuse did not occur thousands of miles away at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, but here at South Dakota's Juvenile Training School in Plankinton, where an investigation of the death of a 14-year-old girl in 1999 eventually uncovered a widespread pattern of cruel behavior, much of it later documented in a federal lawsuit brought by the Youth Law Center. The girl, who was in a boot camp program at Plankinton, had died of heat exhaustion after a forced run.

Though some of the transgressions in Iraq have been attributed to a zeal to gather intelligence, the Bush administration largely blames the abuses -- including targeting inmates as young as 15 -- on a few renegade military police, some of whom had been correctional officers back home in the United States.

Those of us who have spent our professional lives monitoring America's juvenile justice system couldn't fail to see the parallels. While there are many lessons to learn from the way Americans performed at Abu Ghraib, which had 7,000 inmates at its peak, one of them is this: We have long had similar problems here at home, and while investigations in some states have led to reforms, we could make much needed progress by eliminating the use of large, locked institutions for America's troubled youths.

Various inquiries into those kinds of U.S. juvenile institutions over more than three decades have revealed that abuse is all too common. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, youths in several of Texas's juvenile facilities were regularly beaten, slapped, kicked and tear-gassed, a federal judge found in 1974. In the 1980s, children in Florida's facilities were hog-tied and those who escaped were hunted with dogs. It took a federal lawsuit to stop the abuse, and eventually the state closed one facility and dramatically downsized two others.

In juvenile facilities in Louisiana, according to a 1997 Justice Department report, violence was pervasive. Officers seriously injured dozens of young people; some had fractures to jaws, noses, cheeks and eye sockets. In Georgia in 1997, another Justice Department investigation found "a pattern of egregious conditions," including "physical abuse by staff and the abusive use of mechanical and chemical restraints on mentally ill youths." State facilities were so overcrowded at times that "between two and five youths shared the single 8-by-10-foot cell designed for one youth," investigators reported.

A 2002 Justice Department investigation in Mississippi found that at the Columbia Training School "girls are punished for acting out or being suicidal by being placed in a cell called the 'dark room.' " The investigators alleged in a 2003 report that "most girls are stripped naked when placed in the 'dark room.' " In April, the Los Angeles Times reported that officers at one California youth prison allowed attack dogs to bite an incarcerated boy, even though he was following orders and lying on the floor.

Over the past 35 years, lawyers, the media and advocacy organizations have uncovered abuses in state, local or privately operated juvenile facilities in 23 states and the District of Columbia: Arizona, Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Florida, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, Missouri, Nevada, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota and Utah. Often the federal courts had to step in to stop the abuses. In South Dakota, after the Youth Law Center filed a civil rights lawsuit in 2000 against the state training school in Plankinton, the state agreed to stop the worst practices. In 2001, though not required by the settlement, the state decided to close the facility.

In many of the state juvenile facilities where abuses have occurred, medical and mental health professionals have failed to prevent or report dangerous conditions, or collaborated in abusive practices. In 1999, rampant psychological and physical abuse was uncovered in Maryland's state-run juvenile boot camps, including 10 youngsters who had broken bones and teeth and bad cuts; 50 more were found to have been beaten; some had been thrown through windows by "tactical officers" running the camps. Camp staffers had brought some of the beaten and bruised youths to local medical facilities, but medical professionals, juvenile justice personnel and investigating police failed to report suspected child abuse, as required by law. In 2002, the state agreed to pay $4 million to nearly 900 of the former camp inmates.

Unfortunately, the Maryland system still has problems. Five years after the boot camp scandal, U.S. Justice Department investigators have found that conditions at Charles H. Hickey Jr. School and Cheltenham Youth Facility fail to meet minimal constitutional requirements and violate the civil rights of youngsters housed there. Last week, Maryland's only other large institution, the brand-new Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center, was cited by the state's independent monitor for "threats to the life, health and safety" of the juveniles confined there.

The classic evidence of institutional settings' tendency toward deterioration came in 1971, when a group of Stanford University students were placed in a mock prison created by psychology professor Philip Zimbardo. Zimbardo randomly assigned nine students to play the role of prisoners and 15 to act as guards in what was originally designed as a two-week experiment on the effects of a prison environment on normal young men.

Conditions at the "Stanford County Prison" deteriorated so rapidly that in just a few days "guards" were humiliating the "inmates" in ways eerily similar to the Abu Ghraib abuses. The faux guards stripped their prisoners naked, denied them food and bedding, hooded them and put them in solitary confinement. They began using prisoners as their playthings, humiliating them in ways that eventually turned sexual, including simulated sodomy. Zimbardo shut down the experiment after only six days. On the 30th anniversary of his experiment, Zimbardo reflected: "It shows how easy it is for good people to become perpetrators of evil."

In this context, the guards' behavior at Abu Ghraib was not surprising. At an Aug. 6 pretrial hearing for Pfc. Lynndie R. England, a 21-year-old military police administrative clerk charged with abuse in the Abu Ghraib case, whistleblower Spec. Joseph Darby quoted Cpl. Charles A. Graner Jr. discussing the use of dogs to terrify inmates: "The Christian in me knows it was wrong, but the corrections officer in me can't help but love to make a grown man piss himself." Graner, 35, had worked at a maximum security prison in Greene County, Pa., before being called to active duty in Iraq.

Fortunately, there is a better way: cutting the population of big prisons, especially in America's juvenile justice system, where the vast majority of young people are serving detention terms for nonviolent offenses. Several states and counties have reduced the number of youths they incarcerate with no untoward impact on public safety. Louisiana and California have now halved the number of young people they lock up.

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