Tuesday, August 08, 2006

UN10: Behind Bars, Beyond Justice

[NOTE: This diary is part of the ongoing series Ten Stories the World Should Hear More About, a group project of the Booman Tribune.]

Have you ever stopped to wonder why we choose the caging of human beings as a form of punishment? Terms like prison, jail, detention center, "juvie", etc. are used to label a difference in the venue, but at the heart of it all - we cage human beings as a means of separating them from the greater population. While several hundred diaries could be written about this ingrained way of dealing with society's "unwanted", and the ways rehabilitation fits into the equation, this particular piece deals with children who find themselves at odds with the law most of the time.
Amid important strides in global efforts to ensure a protective environment for the youngest members of society, an alarming number of children in many parts of the world are held in detention without sufficient cause, often for offences that are not considered criminal when committed by adults. - UN10 Synopsis Page

In 1989, the United Nations General Assembly approved the Human Rights Commission's Convention on the Rights of the Child. Article 37 reads as follows:

States Parties shall ensure that:

(a) No child shall be subjected to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Neither capital punishment nor life imprisonment without possibility of release shall be imposed for offences committed by persons below eighteen years of age;

(b) No child shall be deprived of his or her liberty unlawfully or arbitrarily. The arrest, detention or imprisonment of a child shall be in conformity with the law and shall be used only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time;

(c) Every child deprived of liberty shall be treated with humanity and respect for the inherent dignity of the human person, and in a manner which takes into account the needs of persons of his or her age. In particular, every child deprived of liberty shall be separated from adults unless it is considered in the child's best interest not to do so and shall have the right to maintain contact with his or her family through correspondence and visits, save in exceptional circumstances;

(d) Every child deprived of his or her liberty shall have the right to prompt access to legal and other appropriate assistance, as well as the right to challenge the legality of the deprivation of his or her liberty before a court or other competent, independent and impartial authority, and to a prompt decision on any such action.

The problem of unlawful and inhumane detention of children (defined as under age 18 by the UN) is one that spans all countries regardless of economic status. The United States is certainly not immune to the temptation of letting adolescent prisoners slip through the cracks. From a 2004 segment of Democracy Now:

From death row in Pennsylvania, we move to the prison system here in California. But not the adult prison system, rather, the institutions here known as the California Youth Authority. Human rights activists call the CYA system a "factory of misery and child abuse." Recent reports on the CYA have revealed rampant sexual assault, alarming suicide rates, children held in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day. All of this, while the state of California characterizes the CYA as a place where troubled kids are sent to encourage them to become upstanding adults.

Well, a campaign to shut down these child prisons is gaining momentum here in California. The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights recently announced a state-wide day of action called "Stop the Tragedies, Stop the Abuse." On April 28, a series of candlelight vigils will be held across California to remember two teenagers who were both found hanged in the cell they shared in a CYA prison.

California State Senator Gloria Romero recently released a video of California Youth Authority guards beating two boys inside the prison. The video shows the guards beating the boys long after the boys stop offering even meager resistance.

While the protests were unsuccessful in closing down the CYA detention program, last month they issued a Safety and Welfare Remedial Plan to address the concerns raised by human rights activists. The plan of action can be found here in .pdf format.

The ACLU has been on top of this issue with force, as they are with most human rights abuses. Rather than focus on window-dressing, though, they recognize the underlying problems with the way social interaction plays a big part in setting the system against at-risk youth.
The "school-to-prison pipeline" describes an alarming trend wherein public elementary, middle and high schools are pushing youth out of classrooms and into the juvenile justice and criminal justice system.
  • Under the banner of "zero tolerance," schools increasingly are relying on inappropriately harsh discipline and, increasingly, law enforcement, to address trivial schoolyard offenses among even the youngest students.
  • Children are far more likely to be arrested at school than they were a generation ago. And these school-arrests are not for violent behavior. For example, in one Texas school district, 17 percent of school arrests were for disruptive behavior, and 26 percent were for disorderly conduct.(1)
  • Defenders of the pipeline cannot attribute the explosion of school-based arrests to an increase in school violence. On the contrary, empirical evidence shows that between 1992 and 2002, school violence actually dropped by about half.(2)
  • Rather than nurturing and educating children perceived to pose a disciplinary problem, schools are turning to law enforcement to simply get rid of the child.
The factsheet continues with the statistics on the disproportionate amounts of minority and disabled children being fed through the criminal justice system. It is a trend that is echoed within the adult prison and jail populations of the U.S.

The United States is just one of countless examples of countries with abhorrent child detention practices. A cursory Google Search yielded examples from all across the globe. For example, in the United Kingdom a couple of years ago, the name Gareth Myatt was in the headlines

Gareth Myatt, 15, of Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire, died in hospital on Monday after collapsing at Rainsbrook Secure Training Centre in Northants.

A forensic examination has also been carried out of the scene where Gareth died and witness statements have been taken from staff and residents at the centre.


Prison reformers have called for an independent inquiry into his death.

Director of the Howard League for Penal Reform, Frances Crook, said the use of solitary confinement and physical restraint are potentially dangerous to children and needed investigating. - linkage

The UK Parliament issued this Conclusion after analysis of their state-sponsored detention programs:
In concluding we want to reiterate our view that a Standing Commission on Custodial Deaths be set up which would bring together the evidence collected from the separate investigation bodies in place to investigate deaths in custodial settings. Our monitoring of deaths in custody this year further illustrate concerns about the number of cases raising concerning degrading and inhuman treatment and the failure of the State to learn the lessons arising from the cases and the lack of joined up thinking between government agencies. Such a Commission could play a key role in the promotion of a culture of human rights and promote measures to prevent or minimise the risk of future violations of Article 2 of the Human Rights Act.

Examples of children within various forms of prison systems can be found all across the globe. From Iraq to Haiti, Brazil to Palestine, Sweden to the Philippines, Bolivia to Guantanamo Bay; this is clearly a dark shadow that blights the human race, needing not only a spotlight to expose its inhumanity but a massive uprooting of our understanding in dealing with those we collectively deem troublemakers.

For more information:
Crossposted at Booman Tribune

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