Reading Dana Liebelson’s investigation into the treatment of children in America’s adult prisons, one entirely irrational thought occurs over and over: Somebody needs to send in a SEAL team that can land on the prison roof, shimmy inside and rescue these kids before any more harm is done to them.
Of course, the kids aren’t being held by a hostile foreign government or a rogue terrorist group, but, in this particular case, by the state of Michigan. The sense of urgency, however, is real, driven by the kinds of stories Liebelson uncovers: a boy who says he was repeatedly sexually assaulted by grown men he’s forced to bunk with; a girl manhandled in a cell extraction captured on video; a lack of any focus on educational or rehabilitative services; the casual use of solitary confinement; kids attempting suicide in the most horrific ways. And for what?
The overincarceration of people in American society has reached pathological levels, but for the same treatment to be meted out to children demands immediate intervention. Liberals, conservatives and libertarians are all coming together to call for comprehensive criminal justice reform, and the movement’s progress is impressive and hopeful. But there is a long way to go, and these kids can’t wait.
Some of the young people in Liebelson’s story are involved in a lawsuit against the state, asking to be “housed in a safe environment free of sexual assaults, sexual harassment, and physical violence perpetrated by adult prisoners and/or staff.” That they’ve done so takes an inspiring depth of courage, given allegations that Michigan corrections staff retaliate against those who complain. And not just prisoners: A special agent with the state attorney general’s office followed Liebelson to two separate prisons to serve her twice with subpoenas for her notes of her conversations with inmates incarcerated as kids.
If these kids can face down an adult prison system, surely federal and state officials can find the political courage to make at least some simple changes that inch us closer to a civilized society. Here’s where we suggest they start.
1. Keep kids out of adult prisons.
“The science is pretty clear; at 21 and under, your brain is not yet mature,” said Margo Schlanger, a civil rights lawyer and University of Michigan law professor. With that being the case — and we all know intuitively, even outside of the science, that it is — people 21 and under simply shouldn’t be in adult prisons.
2. Focus on education.
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act can apply to anyone 21 and under, and requires, broadly speaking, the state to afford a decent education to the kinds of kids locked up in prison. For a variety of reasons, this doesn’t always happen when children are stuffed into adult correctional facilities.
3. Stop using solitary confinement.
Solitary is brutal for anyone, but for a kid whose brain is still developing and identity is being formed, days, weeks, months or years of isolation can do irreversible damage. And it doesn’t work. “Being alone is just really counterproductive for trying to get a grip on behavior,” Schlanger said. If isolation is to be used on children, she said, it should be done in increments of “hours rather than days.”
4. Don’t use cell extractions except for life-saving purposes.
Cell extractions — in which a bunch of burly guards charge into a cell after dousing it with chemical spray, and start welding electric shields and stun guns — are barbaric. And it’s often done simply because the kid wouldn’t give his lunch tray back. Anyone with children knows mealtime is ripe for conflict, as it’s one moment where kids can exert some control over their lives. Instead of terrorizing the children, guards could perhaps tell them they don’t get dessert until they return the tray.
5. Better prepare kids for re-entry.
Someone who spent their formative years in an adult prison is not going to smoothly re-enter society — considering that for them, they are not re-entering, but entering for the first time. Investment made at this moment will be returned many times over.
6. Stop locking up so many children.
Some 6,000 young people are locked in prisons and jails, according to the most recent count. “For what?” Schlanger wondered. “Nobody can tell you a story about why that’s better for the world.”
Liebelson’s investigation is produced by HuffPost Highline, a longform unit which publishes one in-depth feature per week. It’s edited by Rachel Morris and Greg Veis, with fact-checking by Raillan Brooks and multimedia by Emily Kassie. To support this project, and to get alerted when Highline publishes a new piece, enter your email here.
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