You probably know that the United States has more people in the slammer than any other country in the world. The staggering number is 2.3 million. China, which has four times as many people as the US, is a distant second with 1.6 million prisoners.
What you may not know is that the US also tops the charts in the numbers of youth offenders serving life without parole sentences in adult US prisons. The score? The world: 0; the US: 2,570.
Right. The US is only country in the world that incarcerates people in adult prisons for crimes they committed when they were below the age of 18.
Furthermore, those prisoners experience conditions that violate fundamental human rights. That’s the depressing conclusion of a new study by Human Rights Watch, “Against All Odds: Prison Conditions for Youth Offenders Serving Life without Parole Sentences in the United States.”
Three months from now, in March, the US Supreme Court will consider the constitutionality of the life-without-parole sentence for youth offenders.
The 47-page report draws on six years of research, and interviews and correspondence with correctional officials and hundreds of youth offenders serving life without parole. Human Rights Watch found that nearly every youth offender serving life without parole reported physical violence or sexual abuse by other inmates or corrections officers. Nationwide statistics indicate that young prisoners serving any type of sentence in adult prison, as well as those with a slight build and low body weight, are most vulnerable to attack.
“Children who commit serious crimes and who inflict harm on others should be held accountable,” said Alison Parker, director of the US program at Human Rights Watch and co-author of the report. “But neither youth offenders, nor any other prisoner, should endure any form of physical abuse.” Most of the life-without-parole inmates have been convicted of homicide offenses.
“The penalty [of life without parole] forswears altogether the rehabilitative ideal…. For juvenile offenders, who are most in need of and receptive to rehabilitation, the absence of rehabilitative opportunities or treatment makes the disproportionality of the sentence all the more evident,” the report says.
This new research sheds light on the severity of prison conditions for those serving this sentence, Human Rights Watch said.
“…scared to death,” said a youth offender serving life without parole in California. “I was all of 5’6”, 130 pounds and they sent me to PBSP (Pelican Bay State Prison in California). I tried to kill myself because I couldn’t stand what the voices in my head was saying…. ‘You’re gonna get raped.’ ‘You won’t ever see your family again.’”
Youth offenders are serving life without parole sentences in 38 states and in federal prisons. They often enter adult prison while still children, although some have reached young adulthood by the time their trials end and they begin serving their sentences. Prison policies that channel resources to inmates who are expected to be released often result in denying youth serving life without parole opportunities for education, development, and rehabilitation, Human Rights Watch found.
Youth offenders commonly reported having thoughts of suicide, feelings of intense loneliness, or depression. Isolation was frequently compounded by solitary confinement. In the past five years, at least three youth offenders serving life without parole sentences in the United States have committed suicide.
The federal government and the states should abolish the sentence of life without parole for crimes committed by children, Human Rights Watch said. Government officials responsible for youth offenders should reform confinement conditions to accommodate their particular vulnerabilities, needs, and capacities to mature, reflect upon the harm they have caused, and change.
“Because children are different, shutting the door to growth, development, and rehabilitation turns a sentence of life without parole into a punishment of excessive cruelty,” said Parker. “Youth offenders should be given a path to rehabilitation while in prison – not forced to forfeit their future.”
Yet, lifers with the opportunity of parole (LWOP’s) experience a lack of educational opportunities. “LWOPs cannot participate in many rehabilitative, educational, vocational training or other assignments available to other inmates with parole dates…. The supposed rationality is that LWOPs are beyond salvagability and would just be taking a spot away from someone who will actually return to society someday,” the report says, quoting a youth offender serving life without parole in California.
Another inmate, this one in Arkansas, told Human Rights Watch (HRW), “I would be ever grateful… for the chance to spend my life now for some good reason. I would go to the most dangerous parts of Afghanistan…or jump on the first manned mission to Mars…. if the state were to offer me some opportunity to end my life doing some good, rather than a slow-wasting plague to the world, it would be a great mercy to me.”
The HRW report said, “Our research has found that youth offenders are among the inmates most susceptible to physical and sexual assault during their incarceration. Many are placed in isolated segregation to protect them or to punish them, some spending years without any but the most fleeting human contact.
Because of their sentence, youth offenders serving life without parole face the additional burden of being classified in ways that deprive them of meaningful opportunities while in prison. Many are denied access to educational and vocational programs available to other inmates. Finally, facing violence, stultifying conditions, and the prospect of lifelong separation from family and friends, many youth offenders experience depression and intense loneliness. Failed by prison mental health services, many contemplate and attempt suicide; some succeed.”
The report found that none of the 560 youthful offenders contacted by Human Rights Watch had managed to avoid violence in prison. When prison officials tolerate such violence, it constitutes a serious human rights abuse.
Youth offenders often spend significant amounts of their time in US prisons isolated from the general prison population. Such segregation can be an attempt to protect vulnerable youth offenders from the general population, to punish infractions of prison rules, or to manage particular categories of inmates, such as alleged gang members.
Youth offenders frequently described their experience in segregation as a profoundly difficult ordeal. Life in long-term isolation usually involves segregating inmates for 23 or more hours a day in their cells.
Offenders contacted by Human Rights Watch described the devastating loneliness of spending their days alone, without any human contact, except for when a guard passes them a food tray through a slot in the door, or when guards touch their wrists.
HRW makes a series of recommendations to federal, state and local judges and prison officials. All are preceded by HRW’s longstanding call to state and federal governments to “abolish the life without parole sentence for all youth offenders and abolish the automatic trial of youth in adult criminal courts and their mandatory incarceration in adult prisons.”
William Fisher has managed economic development programs for the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development in the Middle East, North Africa, Latin America, Asia and elsewhere for the past 25 years. He has supervised major multi-year projects for AID in Egypt, where he lived and worked for three years. He returned later with his team to design Egypt’s agricultural strategy. Fisher served in the international affairs area in the administration of President John F. Kennedy. He began his working life as a reporter and bureau chief for the Daytona Beach News-Journal and the Associated Press in Florida. He now reports on a wide-range of issues for a number of online journals.