Julie Jacobson / AP

Jailing teens criminalizes them

Gratuitous cruelty in jails and prisons raises the question, Why are young people incarcerated in the first place?

August 25, 2014 6:00AM ET

The blows rained down on the four teens as the officers swarmed over them, attacking them with batons, broomsticks, even their radios. After leaving the boys with head trauma and chest contusions, the officers later reported that they had been attacked, suggesting the response was justified. This was, after all, a place full of dangerous people: New York’s Rikers Island jail, where there are no children — just inmates.

It was one of the many scenes recounted in a disturbing new report by the Department of Justice (PDF). The documentation of brutality against detained youths forms a backdrop to the media images of police clashes that have emerged from Staten Island, New York, to St. Louis — where two cases of black men dying at the hands of police have recently highlighted a grim pattern. Rikers represents the nadir of the “broken windows” style of law enforcement — the tough-on-crime method of cracking down on smaller violations, such as vandalism, in order to prevent more serious social disorder. That approach, fraught with racial bias and prone to excessive police aggression, starts on the streets of poor urban neighborhoods and leads all the way to the jail cells where state-sanctioned violence and official impunity conspire to produce, as the investigators put it, “broken people.”

The city has begun responding to the report with the departure of the Department of Correction’s top investigator, along with promises to reform the facility’s management. But administrative tweaks won’t resolve the injustice at the core of Rikers; the only way to fix it is to dismantle the system from top to bottom.

The study focused on Rikers’ population of 16- and 17-year olds, who are housed in separate units alongside the massive adult detainee population. New York is one of only two states (along with North Carolina) where 16- and 17-year-olds are criminally charged as adults (PDF). Since Rikers primarily holds people awaiting trial, three-quarters of its detainees have not been convicted. Yet its roughly 500 youth inmates, largely black and Latino young men, are criminalized from the moment they set foot inside and, as the report documents, face gratuitous cruelty, imposed in the name of maintaining “order.”

Orwellian tactics

The abuses described in the report border on obscene. Vicious beatings, pervasive intimidation and weeks or months spent in punitive isolation cells known as the box.

Dogged by reports of extreme violence among both staff and inmates, correction officers have argued that the staff is overstressed and that youths are instigating violence. While it’s true that this is considered a hard-to-manage population — many of these teenagers have mental health issues or have experienced violent trauma — the staff behavior documented in the report is not only excessive but unconscionable. 

According to the report, some staff have forced teens to “strip down to their underpants and walk down the dormitory hallway ... when they misbehave.” Some retaliated against kids by physically battering them or tormenting them by spitting in their food or throwing out their belongings.

The investigation found that officers — far from acting merely in self-defense — often deliberately provoked and escalated confrontations rather than trying to deter violence.

The oppression is enforced by Orwellian tactics. After brutalizing a child, according to the report, “staff often yell ‘stop resisting’ even though the adolescent has been completely subdued or, in many instances, was never resisting in the first place,” to falsely portray the child as the aggressor.

Many of these youths come from backgrounds of trauma and instability. Why shunt them to a place designed to break them even further?

Staff were often inexperienced and inadequately trained to deal with troubled youths. Constant turnover exacerbated the volatile environment for staff and inmates alike. During the last term of former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, according to The New York Times, reports of staff violence against detainees nearly doubled even as the population shrank. Amid the abuse scandals and widespread political pressure for reform, correction authorities sought to revamp training and reduce violence, but the efforts have been hobbling and piecemeal.

Meanwhile, the portion of inmates diagnosed with mental illness (PDF) now amounts to about half of the youth population. The rates are higher among the population in solitary confinement, which included 15 to 25 percent of imprisoned youths in 2013. Under New York City’s jurisdiction, Rikers maintains punitive isolation for children and adults, though state prisons across New York have banned the practice for minors and other vulnerable populations, and human rights groups have universally condemned it as a form of torture.

The Justice Department has recommended numerous reforms, including stronger oversight, accountability measures and specialized training for correction officers and administrators, and even a separate facility with specialized youth services.

But Rikers can’t be fixed merely with more discipline or oversight. The institutional breakdown of the jail must be traced back to the question of why those kids are in there in the first place — because they shouldn’t be.

Alternative methods

As a first step toward dismantling the excessively punitive criminal justice system, lawmakers can reform the legal structure so that 16- and 17-year-olds, at least, are treated as children, not adults. Providing children with adequate legal representation would also help ensure that they are not jailed just because they cannot afford bail or are unfairly deemed a flight risk. Instead of jail cells, the city can build on proven alternative-to-incarceration initiatives by placing youths awaiting trial under supervision — with supportive social programs — within their communities.

Even when youths are convicted of a crime, research tells us that rehabilitative approaches are superior to the wholesale cruelty meted out by conventional prisons. Alternative programs that focus on holistic social services can help stabilize young people’s home lives and provide long-term support without further traumatizing them with incarceration. Court systems across New York State have launched alternative judicial institutions, such as mental health courts, drug treatment courts and so-called diversion programs for adolescents, which provide them with community-based behavioral or group therapy.

Warehousing someone in a city jail can cost more than $165,000 annually. Preventive programs not only save taxpayer money but also enable young people to stay connected with and contribute to their families, schools and communities, which in turn could help reduce the high rates of recidivism that plague youths caught up in the current system.

Many of these youths come from backgrounds of trauma and instability. Why shunt them to a place designed to break them even further? The walls at Rikers stretch well beyond the island. They reach into county courtrooms, through the ravaged streets of Chicago and into the rioting suburb of Ferguson, Missouri. These sharp social divides are all staked on a false premise of security. The opacity of the prison system blinds us to the youths on the inside. Yet when our most vulnerable are under siege, we’ll never see real public safety; true security comes through empathy and moral clarity. 

Michelle Chen is a contributing editor at In These Times, an associate editor at CultureStrike and a blogger at The Nation. She is a co-producer of “Asia Pacific Forum” on Pacifica’s WBAI and Dissent magazine’s “Belabored” podcast. She studies history at the City University of New York Graduate Center. 

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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