By Olivia Lennox
A Life Not Lived
On January 3rd the campaigning organisation Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued a report entitled ‘Against All Odds: Prison Conditions for Youth Offenders Serving Life without Parole Sentences in the United States’. It is based on research conducted over a six year period, and it makes interesting and sometimes shocking reading.
The report deals with the plight of children incarcerated in adult prisons who due to the sentence they have received have no or at least very little prospect of ever seeing the outside world again. They estimate there to be 2570 such young offenders in this position at the present time. HRW does not question the fact that the people their report deals with are offenders and that they should be punished for their crimes, but they do question the imposition of a life without parole sentence on such young people, and they also highlight the treatment and experiences those young people face.
Building on previous studies it is established that under-eighteens in adult prison are, “twice as likely to be beaten by staff and fifty percent more likely to be attacked with a weapon than minors in juvenile facilities.” Numerous examples are given of evidence provided by inmates that puts such statistics into a personal context. Amongst them is that of Michael S., who was seventeen when he entered prison. He wrote that: ‘On several occasions I have been physically assaulted. I reported the first assault, but from that point forward I deduced that it was best to remain silent as I cannot afford to be labeled [an informant] in my current circumstances.’
The report makes clear that it is not simply a physical abuse being suffered by young inmates, but also sexual abuse when it states that, “Almost every male inmate we interviewed described having been approached by other prisoners for sexual favors, or having to fight to protect themselves from rape.” In view of the authoritative report HRW produced in 2001 on male rape in US prisons, it is a statement that carries weight. From amongst many others they quote the evidence of Warren P. who was fifteen when he was incarcerated. ‘I was the target of covert sexual predators. Adults would pretend to be your best friend to get close to you, then they would try you…. Officers would be hard on me more so than the adults for they believe that the younger inmates need rougher treatment.’ This evidence points to the fact that young offenders have to worry about their treatment at the hands of authority as well as fellow prisoners, and in amongst the worst examples is that of male staff abusing young female inmates and described by Cheryl J. who entered prison at eighteen. ‘A lot of them [female inmates] do favors for the guards. The ones who work at sally port [a security gate between a prison’s interior and public areas]. To get tobacco, they give guards head … it’s beginning to be more male guards instead of female guards [here] and they’re taking advantage of it. They think all females wanna be touched and watched by them but that’s not true!’
The vast majority of abuse in prisons goes unreported for a number of reasons. There is fear of retaliation from fellow prisoners or staff, fear of being seen as weak and becoming a target for others, fear of being labelled as an informant, and fear of isolation. Even when young offenders are removed from the main prison population, it is generally into isolation, either for their own protection or because of some rule infringement, and it appears that young offenders in general spend significant periods in such confinement. This prevents their participation in educational or rehabilitative programs, the opportunities for which are already very limited, and deprives them of nearly all human contact. Unsurprisingly such prolonged isolation can frequently result in mental health disorders, self harm and even suicide attempts. Young people are quick to learn, and will often consider it a better to face the risks amongst the general population than to opt for the alternative.
Change for the better
According to HRW research, the US is the only country that imposes life without parole sentences on offenders under the age of eighteen. Other countries have accepted that crimes committed by under-eighteens need to be dealt with differently, because they are crimes committed by children whose cognitive development is not complete, and whose long term behaviour patterns are not yet determined. Therefore, such young offenders may be subject to change and to positive influences to encourage them to make a positive contribution to society in the future.
If a child is told they will be imprisoned for the rest of their life, and particularly in the hostile environment of the US prison system, if they are removed from family and friends, if they are denied opportunities for self development and improvement, and if their only prospect is to die behind bars, then they have no hope. Without hope most will be immune to the violence and dysfunctional behaviour that surrounds them, until the point comes when they are simply part of it and lost to society.
Most young offenders serving such sentences are doing so because they have taken another life, but it surely compounds the crime if we allow two lives to be lost in the process. In March 2012 the Supreme Court will consider the constitutionality of Life without Parole sentences for young offenders. It would benefit them to read the HRW Against All Odds report before they make their deliberations.
Olivia Lennox is a compassionate finance blogger from London, England. She normally writes on the best savings rates for a variety of blogs, but her heart lies in exposing the injustices suffered by young people around the world.
Human Rights Watch, Against All Odds: Prison Conditions for Youth Offenders Serving Life without Parole Sentences in the United States
Human Rights Watch, No Escape: Male Rape in U.S. Prisons
Martin Forst et al., Youth in Prisons and Training Schools: Perceptions and Consequences of the Treatment-Custody Dichotomy