Is the Baltimore Detention Center Torturing Juveniles?
Criminal justice expert Marc Schindler discusses recent allegations from the Justice Department that a Baltimore detention facility is illegally subjecting juveniles to solitary confinement
STEPHEN JANIS, PRODUCER, TRNN: Hello. My name is Stephen Janis and I’m reporting for the Real News Network in Baltimore.
The UN Committee on torture has condemned it, and the wide use of it here has bolstered our reputation as one of the world’s cruelest jailers. I’m talking about solitary confinement, a method of punishment that experts say inflicts lifelong psychological damage on inmates, but nevertheless is used on roughly 150,000 prisoners across the country at any given time.
But apparently the use of this questionable form of punishment is not limited to adults. Last week, the U.S. Department of Justice sent a pointed letter to Baltimore’s juvenile jail system accusing them of illegally using solitary confinement on juveniles. According to the letter, the Baltimore facility has confined at least one teen in excess of 150 days, and the criticism didn’t stop there. The letter outlined other problems, including poor training and lack of drug treatment for inmates.
Here to discuss this issue is Marc Schindler, an expert on the juvenile justice system, and the prison system in general. Mr. Schindler is the executive director of the Justice Policy Institute, a think tank that examines the growing cost of the country’s prison industrial complex. He also has a wide range of experience in the criminal justice system itself as both a public defender and reformer.
Marc, thank you for joining us, I appreciate it.
MARC SCHINDLER, EXEC. DIRECTOR, JUSTICE POLICY INSTITUTE: Thank you for having me.
JANIS: What was your initial reaction to the report? Just, you know, right off the top?
SCHINDLER: So, unfortunately my reaction was not surprise. This has actually been a long-standing issue here in Baltimore, where young people have been held at the Baltimore City jail or the Baltimore City detention center for many years in dangerous conditions. And so this is information that has been known for some time, but is increasingly getting more attention, as it should.
JANIS: Talk about the idea of solitary confinement as being torture. You know, the UN has said it’s torture, but we still continue to use it. So first, why is it considered torture?
SCHINDLER: Sure. So as recently as three weeks ago, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights issued a report, saying again that solitary confinement for young people should be considered torture. It is internationally. It’s an abusive practice. And so I would just suggest for anyone, for anyone who’s watching this today, take some time. Spend an hour, even, in your bathroom, and see how that feels. That’s much better conditions than we have in facilities like the Baltimore City detention center. And you can start to understand the impact it has on people psychologically, and how that plays out over the long term. And so when we’re confining young people in these types of conditions, it’s completely counterproductive.
JANIS: Give us some description, if you know, what is it like if you’re in solitary confinement as a juvenile? What kind of conditions are they? How long are you by yourself, and what happens?
SCHINDLER: Yeah, so unfortunately, as the report noted, it’s for a very extended period. For days and days at a time, with very little time outside of your cell. In juvenile facilities, we refer to them as rooms, although this is a jail complex that we’re talking about.
And so in some ways we, I think, don’t give this issue as much attention as we should because it is seen in the juvenile justice context as somewhat more benign. Typically in juvenile facilities around the country you wouldn’t hear the term solitary confinement. What you would hear is room confinement. But it’s equally as concerning. And so what we have is young people who are confined in a very small place, very small space, in very stark conditions, for very extended periods of time.
And often, unfortunately, the young people who end up in solitary or room confinement are young people who have other challenges, whether they be existing mental health issues and other behavioral issues. So for those young people, placing them in that type of setting is about the worst thing we could do.
JANIS: Well yeah, because teenage physiology is different, to a certain extent, than an adult’s. And how do you think that affects, and how is that different for them in the experience of solitary?
SCHINDLER: Sure, that’s absolutely right. What we know, and we know increasingly more about this particularly over the last decade, where we know both from brain science research as well as from research on adolescent development, is that young people physiologically and cognitively are different than adults. Now, if you talk to any parents, particularly of teenagers, that’s not a surprise, right? And we know from a common sense that young people behave differently, and they react to things differently.
So when we think about something, for example, the concept of time. Right? For you and I as adults, we may be able to pass away an hour or two hours, a couple hours and sort of occupy ourselves. For young people, that takes on a different type of dynamic for them, where it seems much, much longer. Right? And their bodies are racing, and their mind is racing. And to put them into situations where they have no external stimulation, no activity, no contact, no ability to converse with someone else, it’s a very traumatic experience.
And so increasingly what we’re seeing in juvenile justice systems is a dialog about needing to be trauma-informed. That’s because we know that a lot of young people have traumas outside in their communities, particularly the communities that a lot of our young people coming to the justice system come from. And then what we’re doing when we bring them into the system, supposedly to help them and rehabilitate them, we’re exerting more trauma on them. And so, again, just completely counterproductive.
JANIS: Well then how do the juvenile justice authorities justify this type of punishment? I mean, what do they use as an argument to say we need to do this?
SCHINDLER: Yeah, so unfortunately what we see oftentimes is room confinement, solitary confinement is used for young people who are deemed “out of control” in some way. They may be assaultive in their behavior, or they may just not be following rules. And unfortunately what we see oftentimes in facilities like the Baltimore facility is a lack of staff training, a lack of programming that would be able to respond to this type of behavior in an appropriate and effective way.
And so when we have facilities who don’t have the type of programming, who don’t have staff that are trained to work with young people and understand what makes young people tick and how they are developmentally different than adults, then we end up resorting to things like room confinement and solitary confinement.
It’s really a factor of not having the appropriate tools in their toolkit in order to respond to young people’s behavior, and it’s a factor of not having leadership at the top of a facility or department that says this is not acceptable. This is not the way we’re going to respond to young people’s misbehavior.
JANIS: One thing we talked about before starting was the fact that this is an adult facility in general, and that these juveniles are incarcerated for quite a long period of time. Could you discuss that a little bit, what are the challenges of being in an adult facility?
SCHINDLER: Sure, absolutely. And so what we know from decades of research now is that young people who are prosecuted in the adult system and housed in adult facilities are in extremely great risk of harm. They’re more vulnerable to assault and sexual assault in those facilities, they attempt and commit suicide at a much higher rate than young people in juvenile facilities. Essentially they are very dangerous places for young people.
And it’s just, it’s an inappropriate setting. These are settings that were not designed for young people, and the staff that are there are not trained to work with young people. And we see that, unfortunately, even in situations where you have the United States Department of Justice investigating a facility for years. I think the report noted that fully 87%, almost nine out of ten staff, had not received the appropriate training to work with young people. And that’s with the Justice Department directing that they do it.
JANIS: On a larger scale, or a bigger picture question, how does our juvenile justice system compare to other countries? Let’s say, first world countries. How does our approach compare in terms of being rehabilitated, let’s say?
SCHINDLER: Sure. Well, I think there’s really two questions that are appropriate, and you’re asking the right question in terms of how we compare internationally. But I think we also have to ask, how does the juvenile system compare to the adult system, when you’re talking about kids in adult facilities.
First off, our juvenile system, although lacking in many ways, is still better or more appropriate than having them in an adult facility. So I think we should start straight-out, and the Justice Department recommends, the best thing they could do is just move those kids out of that facility.
And the reason they’re saying that is because the juvenile justice system is at least designed and intended to provide rehabilitation and treatment, and staff there are receiving the type of training that they should be able to work with young people.
That said, we have problems within our juvenile facilities, as well. And so we have a long way to go to embody the ideals that we want in terms of well-run and well-operated juvenile facilities. And unfortunately what we’ve seen in this country, really since the ’90s but in someways since before that, is a dynamic where we see our juvenile system looking more like the adult, criminal justice system in this country as compared to in other countries that may have a more progressive approach.
That said, we are starting to see the pendulum shift back. And so we are seeing more of an attention to best practices, and an attention to developing facilities and programs that are appropriate for adolescents. And so there is a movement within the country both to downsize, not to use incarceration as much for young people as we have in the past, and to make the settings where we have young people in secure settings less severe. Less harsh. We still have a long way to go in that regard, but we are making progress.
JANIS: Well you know, our juvenile facility arrests somewhere between 6 to 1,000 young people a month. What is some of the data showing the outcomes of those encounters with the juvenile justice system? Does it have good outcomes?
SCHINDLER: So unfortunately part of the problem that we see in our juvenile system is we’ve seen over time what we would refer to as a widening of the net. So a lot of behavior for young people that never would have ended up in the juvenile system years ago is now being criminalized. That’s everything from fights in schools to kids sitting on minibikes in neighborhoods, right? And those are cases that now are getting referred to the justice system, whereas years and years ago, I think when you and I were younger, those types of behaviors would, for example in the school setting, been more likely to have been dealt with in the principal’s office than the police precinct.
So what we’re seeing is an overcriminalization of behaviors that go into the juvenile system. And that has implications throughout the system. When you have many more young people in a system than should appropriately be there, it actually makes it harder to work on the smaller percentage of kids who appropriately may have been referred to the juvenile system. So when you have more than two thirds of the kids coming into the system who are there for nonviolent behavior, it makes it harder to focus on the one third of young people who may be there, incarcerated, for violent offenses.
And those are young people that at times we really need to focus our attention and our resources on, and make sure when we have them we’re doing everything we can to make them turn away from delinquent activity. Unfortunately our systems don’t do a good job of screening out the lighter-weight kids and focusing attention on the more serious kids. Which means, unfortunately, that we have very high recidivism rates in many juvenile justice systems around the country, at least for those that collect that type of data. Not everybody does.
JANIS: So going forward, you know, what do you think needs to be done? Obviously you’ve recommended moving to juvenile facilities. Are there other forms that need to be put in place?
SCHINDLER: Sure, so I think there’s a number of things we can do. And this debate is happening right here in Maryland, now and over the last several years. So one is, absolutely we should not have any young people … we can draw a line at 18, although the science would have us draw the line actually older than that, now, to have no young people in the adult criminal justice system.
So let’s start there, and let’s make sure that the young people who are in the juvenile justice system, particularly in secure facilities, are those serious violent offenders, a very small percentage of young people, who need to be in that type of setting, appropriately so. And we can focus our resources on them.
For the large majority of other kids who end up in our juvenile justice system, we’d be much better off by keeping them out of the system and investing in community-based programming for those young people, whether it be educational, recreational, workforce-development type experiences. For the kids who need, some substance abuse programming, some mental health programming, those types of programming and approaches can be provided in the community much more effectively and much less expensively. Then we can devote resources to that smaller percentage of kids who really need that intensive type of resource.
JANIS: Marc Schindler, thank you for joining us. I hope we can continue this conversation on the criminal justice system.
SCHINDLER: My pleasure, thank you for having me.
JANIS: My name is Stephen Janis. I am reporting for the Real News Network in Baltimore.
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