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Why Ending Prison Sexual Violence Won’t Be Easy

By: davidchura Friday January 25, 2013 10:16 am

prison cellIt’s an optimistic headline: “Prison Rape: Obama’s Program to Stop It”. It leads into a comprehensive New York Review of Books article on three recently released Federal government publications.  Two of these documents examine sexual abuse in the nation’s detention centers while the other outlines the Department of Justice’s regulations for eliminating prison rape. All three aim to address the appalling number of people—young and old, female and male, citizen and those awaiting deportation— who  routinely suffer sexual violence while in lockup, an estimated 209,000 plus every year according to the Justice Department.

So where’s the optimism? The guidelines established by the Obama administration are—on paper, at least—good ones. As the reviewers David Kaiser and Lovisa Stannow (both staunch advocates for victims of prison sexual assault) note, the new recommendations address pivotal issues: how detention centers are staffed, how those staffs are trained in sexual abuse issues, and how inmates are supervised. Equally important is how offenders are evaluated for their potential as either sexual prey or predator. This provision is crucial in protecting young offenders, especially LGBT youth who are in greater danger of sexual harassment and abuse by peers and adult inmates. Once this information is obtained housing can be assigned based on vulnerability, which in the case of minors means not being housed with adults. There are also new standards on how prisoners can report sexual assault and on how that information is handled and investigated by staff. Kaiser and Stannow write that if these standards are successful—“and we believe they will be”—then the incidences of prison rape will be reduced dramatically.

But I can’t share their optimism. I wish I could. My skepticism stems from the way in which these regulations are to be enforced.  Enforcement will be the responsibility of the state departments of corrections and the correctional staff in charge of prisons and jails.

 

The Harm We Do: Kids in Solitary Confinement

By: davidchura Friday September 7, 2012 8:06 am

Solitary. (photo: TheGiantVermin / flickr)

When most Americans hear the familiar constitutional phrase “cruel and unusual punishment” they can tell you what it means, at least to them. Hanging. Flogging. Chopping a hand off. Chain gangs.

Putting juvenile offenders in solitary confinement is high on my list of “cruel and unusual punishment.” What else do you call locking up fifteen, sixteen year olds, some even younger, in total isolation for 24 hours a day, in some cases for months at a time, never leaving their cells? “All an inmate’s needs are met right here,” was the way the warden of the adult county jail where I taught high school students proudly described it as he gave a group of professionals a tour of the new Special Housing Unit (SHU). It was true. Each cell had its own phone, shower, toilet, concrete bed, and adjacent small enclosed rec area. All an inmate’s needs were met, except for the most essential: human contact of any kind.

These conditions are intolerable for anyone and are replicated nationally in our jails. The United Nations Human Rights Council reported that the US has more inmates in solitary confinement than any other democratic nation. But locking up a kid in those conditions, a kid with more energy than a playground can hold; whose body at times practically vibrates with urges that many more advantaged teens struggle to control; whose emotional and intellectual development is at best undernourished, can only be called “cruel and unusual.”

Human Rights Watch agrees. It’s recently released “Against All Odds: Prison Conditions for Youth Offenders Serving Life Without Parole in the United States” documents the overuse of solitary confinement with minors and its devastating effects on them, effects heightened by the prospect of life without parole. The young people interviewed considered isolation a “profoundly difficult ordeal,” leaving them with “thoughts of suicide, feelings of intense loneliness or depression.”

But it’s not just “lifers” in solitary who experience those “profound effects.” I saw it when I visited my jailhouse students who were locked up in “the cage,” as they called it. They were there because corrections deemed them a threat to “safety and security.” In too many cases, however, that “threat” came from their acting-out behaviors due to untreated mental health issues or ADHD. Still others were seen as “pains in the ass” who “just needed to be taught a lesson.”

It didn’t take long for the new SHU to fall apart, the way everything else does in prison. Walls were scuffed and gouged from inmates being dragged in; cell door windows were smeared as guys jammed and angled their faces to see anything, anyone. The only thing shattering that intense sensory deprivation was the sound of inmates shouting to each other, howling through the thick walls, trying to connect with another human, announcing to the world, “I’m still alive.” And when they weren’t screaming, they were sleeping—15, 16 hours a day.

My students deteriorated as well. Once in isolation they abandoned any sense of civilized behavior. Young guys who would come to class shaven and showered, smelling of Old Spice deodorant, in fresh county oranges, now reeked of unwashed bodies; their hair dirty and matted, faces fuzzed; their eyes caked and puffy from sleep. I would bang on the window until they woke up and lifted their heads from under the pillows and blankets they burrowed under against the cold. They’d shuffle over to the door and we’d squat on our own sides of the concrete and glass wall and talk through the meal tray slot. It was then that I’d be hit by their sour, foul breath as though they were slowly decaying from the inside out.

Finally in 2009 the Department of Justice investigated these abuses. The DOJ reported that half of the inmates in the SHU were between 16 and 18, and that the average stay in isolation for juveniles was 365 days. As a result of these “extremely lengthy sentences,” the mental health of these young people worsened significantly, aggravated “by the jail’s failure” to provide routine treatment. Unfortunately, this is far from an isolated case. Abuses of minors in solitary are happening around the country.

I don’t know how many people get the irony involved here, but I do know that the kids I taught did, even though they never “got” irony in class: We lock children up in inhuman conditions in order to teach them how to act human. Unfortunately, as studies have shown, inmates learn a far different lesson. When they leave isolation they are angrier, more distrustful, more cynical about ever getting justice, and more prone to violence. What could be a more “cruel and unusual punishment” then to confirm these young people’s bedrock belief that America as it is now has no place for them other than behind bars?

 

Originally appeared in Youth Today

Maybe He Was Right and I Didn’t Care about Victims?

By: davidchura Tuesday July 31, 2012 8:00 am

“You don’t care about the victims. All you care about are those kids.”

I Don't Wish Nobody To Have a Life Like Mine by David Churra

It was a comment I’ve heard in one form or another at book events, at juvenile justice talks I’ve given, or in response to pieces I’d written about our national policy of retribution towards troubled kids. I have to admit, though, this guy was a bit more, shall I say, challenging, as he stood up after my reading and made his comment.

I’d read several advice articles for authors on giving readings which suggested that you have “pat answers” ready for the Q & A. It keeps things moving. It may be good advice, but I’ve found that it doesn’t work for me. Juvenile justice is too potent a topic be “pat answered” away. Besides, I wrote I Don’t Wish Nobody to Have a Life Like Mine: Tales of Kids in Adult Lockup about the young offenders I taught for ten years in the adult county prison to get people thinking about this much neglected issue. So I do my best to address each concern sincerely.

Fielding the man’s rather angry question, I talked about my belief that kids should indeed be held accountable for their actions; that they should learn that what they did affected not only their victims and their families and communities but also the young offenders themselves and their families and communities. What I couldn’t support was the punitive quality of that accountability as it is now practiced in our prison system.

I could tell that evening’s questioner was pretty disgusted. I was one more bleeding heart, one more knee jerk liberal, one more sucker taken in by “those kids.” He was gracious about it. He didn’t say any of that out loud. He didn’t have to. I’d heard it all before.

But his comment stayed with me long after the event: What did I feel about the victims?

I talk a lot about victims in my book. But the victims in this case are the locked up high school students I worked with for those ten years. In telling their stories—stories of childhood neglect and abandonment; of sexual abuse; of violence in the home and on the streets; of parental addiction and disease—I wanted readers to at least be aware of the fertile ground of mistreatment in which these children grew up. From my challenger’s point of view I’m sure I do go on too much about “those kids” and not about the people who suffered because of their crimes. (It’s important to note, however, that many of the teens I came across in jail—and this holds true for prisons nationally—were serving time for victimless, nonviolent offences.) I was beginning to wonder if maybe the guy was right. Maybe I didn’t care about crime victims?

In Our Toxic Prison System, is There Room for Hope?

By: davidchura Monday July 9, 2012 8:30 am

I didn’t expect my talk to a class of criminal justice majors at a local community college to be any different from the other workshops, presentations and classes I’d done. The students had read my book for class. I figured I’d talk about the book, about my 10 years teaching high school kids locked up in an adult county jail, and about juvenile justice issues in general. The usual topics. But when I asked the students to go around and say what area of criminal justice they wanted to pursue, I knew this would be a different kind of talk.

I Don't Wish Nobody To Have a Life Like Mine by David Churra

Most wanted to be police or correctional officers; a few mentioned probation. I wasn’t surprised then, when several students commented and questioned me on what they felt was my negative portrayal of the prison system and the people who work in it.

Anyone who has been in corrections probably wouldn’t deny the things that I wrote about: how “the system” is toxic both physically—the overcrowding, the noise, the smell, the potential for violence, and morally—the lack of respect, the constant suspicion, the need to be “tough.” Most correctional people would agree that these conditions have a harmful impact on their professional performance and their personal lives. Over my years in lockup, more than one CO ruefully commented to me, “Sometimes I feel like I’m the one doing time.” What they didn’t like was that I said these things publicly:  I was the worst kind of jail scum—a rat.

However, there was a subtext to what I wrote that I suspected the students (and other correctional professionals) might have missed. As I explained in my book, and to the students that day, jail is defined by a hierarchy of power. Who’s got it, who wants it, and what they’ll do to get it. It is a culture based on “us” and “them.” I wrote about how, when I first came to teach at the jail, I had my own version of this hierarchy: the “bad guys” were the correctional staff, the ones with the keys, and the “good guys” were the inmates, the ones who were oppressed, locked up. A pivotal element in my personal prison journey was to recognize how I had been taken in like everyone else by this hierarchy.  Realizing that, I worked to shake off my stereotypes, meeting each person—inmate and staff alike—as an individual no matter where they fit into the pecking order.

I hit pay dirt. Stereotyping was a concept the students had studied in class, and given their future careers, it was an essential one to understand. As I talked about my evolution their own concerns slowly came out about how quickly their stereotypes of inmates kicked in, seeing them all as thugs, predators, as “bad,” getting what they deserved.

And then their worries started to come out. If you go beyond the media stereotypes of criminals then what are you left with? How do you keep your humanity, your openness, yet not get taken advantage of by inmates, eaten up by “the system.”

Confessions of a “Failing” Teacher

By: davidchura Tuesday May 8, 2012 10:53 am

Originally posted on Beacon Broadside

Like most teachers I’ve gotten some praise from my high school students over my 26 years of teaching—a lesson “wasn’t bad,” or a particular class was “sorta interesting.” I’ve even been told that I was a “pretty good teacher.” High praise coming from teenagers.

Photo by Todd Binger.

But the truth is I wasn’t a “good teacher.” I was a “failure,” at least according to America’s “education reformers”—that “odd coalition of corporate-friendly Democrats, right-wing Republicans, Tea Party governors, Wall Street executives, and major foundations” as Diane Ravitch aptly defines them—because the kids I taught consistently lagged behind their peers in every measure, performing well below grade level, failing state standardized tests.

Given the present state of teacher evaluations, with a significant portion allotted to student performance on mandated tests, I’d be in big trouble if I hadn’t left teaching recently. I certainly wouldn’t get any bonus pay. If it were up to the Obama Administration I might not even have a job since I would be one of those teachers who, as the President noted in his 2012 State of the Union address, “just aren’t helping kids.” And if I still taught in New York I’d be facing the prospect of having my name and ratings published in newspapers and on the internet if the Legislature gets its way in what the New York State Union of Teachers called the “name/shame/blame game.”

But I know that I wasn’t a “failure,” and more importantly, that the hundreds of kids I’ve taught weren’t either. My students were mostly young people of color, living in neighborhoods and families destroyed by poverty and substance abuse, racism and violence, physical and sexual abuse. Overall, life—shaped by their mistakes and by conditions they couldn’t control—left them little time for, or interest in education. Frequently that lack of time and interest led to trouble which led to repeated suspensions, expulsions and in some cases, incarceration.  But sometimes trouble translated into being placed in a small community alternative high school or the jailhouse classroom in the county penitentiary, both places I taught in.

By the time they made it to me, my students were pretty damaged. They hated school. They could barely read or do basic math. And forget about writing. “You expect me to write?” more than one teen squawked in horror at me. But eventually they did. They read, piling up grade levels like some Americans pile up debt. They calculated. They even learned the magic of connecting sentences that made sense.

Keeping Locked-up Kids and Their Families Connected

By: davidchura Wednesday February 1, 2012 5:52 am

Arizona’s legislature recently passed a law charging prison visitors a onetime $25 fee as a way to help close the state’s $1.6 billion budget deficit. Middle Ground Prison Reform, a prison advocacy group, challenged the law in court as a discriminatory tax, but a county judge upheld its constitutionality.

Fees like that, slapped on prisoners and their families, couldn’t be more counterintuitive. But then again, so many of our criminal justice policies are just that. Since it is mostly the poor, the desperately poor who fill US prisons, the $25 fee is one more economic hardship offenders’ families have to struggle with. It becomes another bill they have to scramble to pay—that is if they can.

These kinds of charges (and Arizona isn’t the only jurisdiction trying to shift the cost of incarceration to the poor) have even graver consequences. When a family can’t pay the fee their contact with their loved one is limited, essentially cutting an offender off from the only supports he or she has in the outside world.

Psychologists have long known how central it is for an individual to have nurturing people in his or her life in order to develop emotionally, psychologically and socially. This need for a supportive network is even more essential when we talk about the young people who are locked away from family and loved ones in our nation’s prisons and detention centers.

As anyone who has worked with kids in the penal system knows on a gut level, it is crucial to have families and other supportive community members involved in young offenders’ lives as they serve their time. Now, that commonsense intuition has been given empirical strength by studies done by such juvenile justice groups as the Vera Institute of Justice which have demonstrated that maintaining young people’s connection to families is a major factor in helping kids stay out of jail once they are released.

But it’s easy to question whether these families are really such a positive influence. After all, if they were doing such a great job what are their kids doing in jail?

It’s an easy assumption to make until you see some of those family members in the prison visiting room with their sons and daughters. I got to do that at least twice a year when the jailhouse high school where I taught for ten years in a county adult facility had its open house for families and caregivers.

The place was packed with mothers, fathers, grandmothers, grandfathers, aunts, uncles, brothers and sisters, or the people who stepped into those roles when circumstances—AIDS, death, addiction, incarceration, abandonment, all the things that ravage the lives of the poor and disenfranchised—demanded it. It wasn’t easy for many of them to get there. Meals had to be missed. Second jobs skipped. Long cross-county bus rides with tickets to pay for, transfers to be negotiated, at night, often in bad weather. The grandmother of one of my students, Leon, a skinny 15 year old who was finally making progress in class, had to travel over an hour on three buses to get there. It was a trip I knew she faithfully made twice a week to see her grandson. “I wouldn’t miss a visit with my boy for anything,” she told me, reaching over and giving Leon’s hair a playful tug. “But now you tell, Mr. Chura, how’s he doin in class?” That set Leon squirming.

It was a conversation I had over and over during those family visits. Miguel’s uncle who gave me his phone number and urged me to call him if Miguel wasn’t in school. Luis’ mother, frail and  in a wheelchair, holding her son’s hand, telling me how when Luis got out of jail she was moving her whole family out of state to get away from the gangs that ran wild in the streets. “I just want my boys to be safe,” she said, her English halting but her fear and determination palpable.

It was hard to hear in the visiting room sometimes with people chattering in several different languages, children running around, little brothers squealing when their big brother in his funny orange jump suit picked them up, mothers crying, locked-up sons trying to explain, promise, console. It was hard to hear but it was easy to know what was going on: Families—fragile, fragmented, strained, mending—were desperately trying to stay a family.

Many of those visitors would be willing to admit that they hadn’t done such a good job at maintaining the family bond, but that they did the best they could given the problems they had to face. Like Luis’ mother the determination was there but the resources weren’t. If we as a nation are serious about reducing crime (and not just by increased incarceration) it is important that we not put more obstacles in the way of young inmates’ families but rather that we give them the opportunities and resources to develop and sustain those crucial connections. It’s an investment that’s worth losing 25 bucks over.

Originally appeared on Juvenile Justice Information Exchange

Children of Disappointment and the Season of Hope

By: davidchura Thursday December 22, 2011 1:21 pm
Christmas Tree at DC District Jail - 1929 (photo: Library of Congress via pingnews/flickr)

Christmas Tree at DC District Jail - 1929 (photo: Library of Congress via pingnews/flickr)

If anyone doubts that the young people locked up in our jails are children they should spend some time in one of those prisons around holiday time.

I did just that for the 10 years I taught high school students, some as young as fifteen, in an adult county jail, and every year it got tougher to deny the impact being locked up for the holidays had on these teens.

Jail’s a pretty isolating place. That’s one of the ideas. But in lockup they watched a lot of TV—that great purveyor of culture—and so despite all that concrete and steel and lack of freedom the holidays still seeped in. Christmas carols. Happy families. Cozy couples in front of the fire. Children happier than any of my students had ever been. Promises of peace and joy. And of course, the must-have merchandise. The holiday message blared out day and night on the blocks. Even the din of 40 teenage boys in an overcrowded dorm shouting, rapping, arguing, cursing; of correctional staff barking out orders; of the PA system announcing clinic, lockdown, lights out couldn’t compete with it. Christmas just wouldn’t leave you alone.

So day after day I watched as the holiday spirit got to these young guys. Of course they would never say out loud that it was hard being locked up for Christmas. After all they were tough and had been around more than the block. But like many troubled teens they had their own language of grief. As the weeks of cheery ads piled up, as the carols grew louder, and the TV images of happiness became more insistent, life in lockup became more tense and violent. Food trays got thrown. Noses broken. Food extorted. Threats made and followed through. Codes were called and the emergency response team, sinister black-clad, helmeted Santas, ran down the halls to haul off kid after kid to long days of 23 hour isolation in disciplinary lockup.

“Home for the holidays” held no magic for my jailhouse students. For most of them there wasn’t much out there. Many had long been abandoned or thrown out by whatever remnant of family they had left. Like Ray who was taken from his mother at 5. “She was really messed up on drugs, and my pops was doin’ his first long bid up in Attica,” he explained to me with a fierce family loyalty I couldn’t quite understand. But he didn’t defend his Aunt Sally. She took him out of foster care when he was a little older (“She needed the money”) and locked him up at night with a bucket to pee in. Then one year just a few days before Christmas she kicked him out into the streets. But she didn’t dump him completely. She kept getting and cashing his SSI checks. I taught a lot of Rays over my 10 holidays in the county lockup.

Girls and Young Women in the Prison System: A Growing Population

By: davidchura Tuesday December 13, 2011 11:50 am

It was like a giant switchboard, the kind you see in 30s and 40s movies, a bevy of operators plugging in a crisscross of wires, taking calls, making connections, a cacophony of chatter.

That image came to me recently as I walked into the lobby of the MassMutual Center in Springfield, MA. The only difference was that the conversations filling the hall were about the same thing: girls and young women in the juvenile justice system.

We were there—teachers, social workers, lawyers, mentors, youth workers, college students and professors—for the Through Her Eyes conference sponsored by the Center for Human Development, a regional social services agency. This annual gathering, now in its seventh year, came about when a number of professionals expressed concern over the increased number of at-risk young females in “the system,” and the need for “best practices” to help this growing population. The Center for Human Development stepped up to address their concerns with the first Through Her Eyes conference in 2004.

This increase isn’t just a regional issue, however. It is a nationwide trend. According to the Institute on Women & Criminal Justice the number of women in prison has grown 832% in the past three decades. (The male population grew 416% during the same period.) Of this population African American girls and young women are the fastest growing group. The Department of Justice reports that black females are 2.5 times more likely to be arrested than Hispanics and 4.5 times more likely than whites.

But numbers don’t tell the whole story. They don’t tell what it’s like to be abandoned by your family, the child welfare system, your school and community; to be physically and sexually abused; to grow up in poverty and neglect; to have your life controlled by drugs, alcohol and sex.

The conference participants, though, had firsthand experience of what life was like behind the data. They had sat with these young women in emergency rooms and clinics, stood with them before the judge, listened with them as the school principal refused to give a girl one more chance. That day at the MassMutual Center they were there to share what they had seen Through Her Eyes and to learn other ways to help these vulnerable, much neglected and almost invisible young people.

As a teacher in an adult county prison I taught high school English on the female unit several days a week. Tell people you teach locked-up girls and you can see all the images they’ve ever heard of or seen in B-grade women-in-prison movies flash across their faces: violent, tough, sadistic, sinister. I’m not sure people believe me when I tell them that none of those stereotypes really fit. Not that my students, some as young as 15, didn’t don one of those masks if they had to. After all, jail is jail and you have to survive. But in the brutal hierarchy of prejudice incarcerated girls and women are on the bottom rung. Society demonizes them as irredeemable while the prison system infantilizes and insults them. (The Warden—a white, middle-aged man—for the female unit where I taught  rationed toilet paper and tampons in order to save money.)

But when these girls came to school they were what they most wanted to be—teenagers living a “normal life.” It was a struggle since none had ever had a normal life. Not Heather who after her mother died of AIDS got hooked on crack at 12 years old and took to prostitution to support her habit. Nor Ayesha whose mother refused to name her, leaving the hospital to fill in her birth certificate, “No Name.” As Ayesha was handed down from foster home to group home to detention center she would give herself a different name. “That way I get to feel like a new person each time.” And certainly not Eppy, unless a normal life means being physically and sexually abused first by her brother, then by her uncle, and finally her boyfriend. Until in desperation and self-defense she stabbed the boyfriend with a screwdriver.

Each of us had stories like that to share during the conference. As the day wound down another image, a phrase really, came to my mind, “Only connect.” It was from E.M. Forster’s 1910 novel, Howards End. “Only connect…and human love will be seen at its height.” It was as old fashioned perhaps as that switchboard image, and maybe only an old English teacher like me would think of it. But for me it summed up the focus of the conference day and the purpose of the work so many professionals like us did across the country: to give the girls and young women lost in the juvenile justice system what we all want and need—a connection to a better life and a share of human love at its height.

Originally appeared on Juvenile Justice Information Exchange