On the walls were black and white blow-ups of children-one looking through prison bars, another huddled in a prison cell, and a third stretching his arms out through the cell peephole. At a table in front of the photographs sat five children, all reporters from the Children Express, a New York-based publication, who convened in Washington for three days of hearings on incarcerated children.
A few feet away, siting at the green-felt-draped witness table and facing a battery of television cameras, was Joanne W., a 21-year-old Illinois women who as a child had been institutionalized for seven years. She was testifying about her first-hand experiences in foster homes, at mental hospital and rform school, but particularly her 58 days in solitary confinement. Jonne W. twice was tied onto a bed and severely drugged.
"What did you lose in life from being incarcerated?" asked Robin Moulds, a 13-year-old student at New York's exclusive Chapin School, and the moderator of the hearings. "I lost out on my whole childhood and never going to a regular school," said Joanne W., her voice never changing from a matter-of-fact monotone.
Though the adolescent questioners and the witnesses came from different ends of the American experience, their youth provided them some common ground in understanding the situations of the 100,000 children who are estimated to inhabit public institutions on any given day in the United States.
"How would you define an institutio?" Moulds asked Joanned W. "It's a place to throw away people they don't want to bother with anymore," was the reply.
During the questioning Moulds appeared impassive, and later she explained that she was aiming for a judge-like posture. "But at times I have felt like crying. It hurt that I could be part of a society that could do these things, the horrors of solitary confinement, the forced drugs," said Moulds.
Her Park Avenue background (and the representatives of Children's Ex- press ranged from low-income to the upper-class) didn't create a distance with the witnesses, she added. "I don't think we have ever thought of being different. We are all kids, just the feeling of being alone, being isolated in solitary, is something every teenager has felt."
One adult witness testified that in a 30-state survey of juvenile penal institutions, he found "some form of punitive isolation was used for children who break rules or otherwise cause problems." The practice, he says, often hides behind such euphemiams as "Quiet Room," "Meditation," "Time Out," "Restraints."
At times during the testimony, now in its third day at the downtown storefront headquarters of Day Care and Child Development Council of America, grasps were heard from the spec- [TEXT OMITED FROM SOURCE].
Joanne W. is not her real name but it is the one she prefers to use. She is overweight, her smile tentative. She also is strong-minded and gifted, and who as a child tested out with an intelligence quotient of 140.
Her mother was single, sometimes on public aid, sometimes doing clerical work, and aware of Joanne's potential. Advised by social workers that if Joanne were made a ward of juvenile court she would be sent to a boarding school and given proper education, the mother agreed.
But it never quite worked out that way.After two days in boarding school - "the only black face in a sea of white faces," says her lawyer - she was called unruly, shipped off on a melancholy seven-day odyssey of foster homes, detention homes, a mental institution and a training school.
"The first time I was tied up, the first time was when they titled me as a bully," Joanne W. recalled.
Toward the end of her detention, she came to the attention of a Chicago attorney with the Legal Aid Society, Patrick Murphy, who used the civil rights laws to sue the Illinois Departments of Mental Health and Children and Family Services for unwarranted and excessive treatment of Joanne W. in her 58 days of solitary confinement.
Kenneth P. Wooden, executive director of the National Coalition for Children's Justice, describes "typical" conditions of solitary confinement: "The rooms are dirty, damp, vermininfested and vile-smelling."
He says forced, isolated confinement can, upon occasion, have a devastating effect on the mind and body, impairing vision, coordination and hearing.
Joanne W.'s case was initially thrown out by the lower court but on appeal the higher court ruled the contary. The state settled out of court, giving Joanne W. $25,000. "Joanne came out of it pretty well," said Murphy. "She's bright, strong, with tremendous potential. There are worse cases, believe me."
"I guess," says Joanne W. "that I miss most the childhood I never had. If I can do something to help others like me, well, maybe that's good."
Evert penny of Joanne W.'s $25,000 is gone today, spent by her in year-long spree of going places (California three times) and buying things (a jukebox, a pinball machine, a stereo set, some glass dishes) she had never had a chance to own before.
The White House already has announced a national conference on children to be held there next year in the context of the Year of the Child.
That's one of the reasons Children's the 1976 Democratic National Convention by reporting Walter Mondale's selection as vice president) has been investigating runaways, abused children, the children of alcoholic parents and victims of incest.
This week's hearings were called to inform the public, and hopefully influence state legislatures and national politicians, to change laws that permit solitary confinement. They were patterened after regular congressional hearings, with witnesses bringing films, drawings of prison cells and statistics. But it was the fact that they were convened by children (guided by Kenneth Wooden) that attracted the major media, including a live telecast by WETA (Channel 26) as well as congressional interest. Sen. George Mc Govern (D-S.D.) is scheduled to speak at this morning's concluding hearings.
Joanne W. said she spent a long period of solitary confinement, tied to a bed in spread-eagel fashion, after she struck an attendant.
"They tied me up and administered shots (Thorazine)> and I was in restraints that time for about 30 days," she said, as the questioners took notes and watched the impassive look on her face.
What was it like? asked one.
"It became a matter of life. Sometimes I would have dreams and pretend I was somewhere else," Joanne W. replied."It wasn't fantasy. It just occupied my time."