I suppose it takes a blatant misstep by a governmental agency to draw attention to any injustice and so it seems is the case with Jane Doe, the transgender self-identifying girl who has been transferred from DCF1 custody to the adult women’s prison by way of the men’s young-adult prison.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad that this attention is being paid to the state of our juvenile detention facilities, our prisons and their inadequacy in meeting the needs of troubled teenagers, but just remember as you read about Jane Doe and her predicament that there is probably no substantial difference between her story and that of hundreds of other teenagers in state custody other than her gender identity.
Her story, unfortunately for us in the business, is depressingly familiar:
[She] first entered [state care] at age 5 because her family members were incarcerated, sexually abusive or addicted to drugs.
Jane reports that by age 15, she had been raped dozens of times (including at facilities she was sent to live at by DCF), sold for sex, beaten up and addicted to crack cocaine.
Her behavior eventually turned violent, as chronicled by DCF, who reports that the teenager “has an extensive history of violence,” including stabbing a female peer with a fork, four assaults or threats of assault while in a pre-trial detention facility in Bridgeport, and 10 assaults on staff while at the state’s psychiatric center for children.
But Former Supreme Court Justice and DCF Commissioner Joette Katz oddly stands behind her decision:
“At the time,” Katz said, “I said, I’m running out of options. [The teen] engaged in some of her typical behaviors assaulting youth, grabbing hair, punching; but the one that really was the final straw was the one at the end of January.”
That’s when the teen got into a fight with staff. Katz said the teen fractured a staff member’s jaw and temporarily blinded her. The teen’s attorneys said there were only minor injuries, and no charges were filed.
Fairly typical behavior indeed. And behavior that routinely gets teenagers with mental health issues sent to detention facilities.
In some cases, the detention is accompanied by the institution of a criminal proceeding; in some like Jane Doe’s, it is not. Jane Doe got lucky. There are hundreds of teenagers who may have done exactly what she did and been charged with crimes. In Connecticut we already have too many crimes for which 14year olds are automatically treated as adults and sentences to harsh adult prison sentences. Don’t fool yourself into thinking this is a rare, one-off event.
And some of what you may think of as “crimes”, may actually just be what are called ‘status offenses’2.
A new report [PDF] released by The Texas Public Policy Foundation chronicles our knee-jerk reaction to send juveniles to detention facilities for what should generally be regarded as ‘teenagery’. The study concludes (and be sure to check out the stats in the report):
The findings in this report suggest that, as a nation, while we have made significant progress in reducing confinement of status offenders, there remains a great deal of work to be done to shift away from confinement as the means of responding to these behaviors. Although the numbers of status offenders detained or committed to confinement have declined substantially since the year 2001, we estimated that nearly ten thousand youth each year are still being confined in the U.S. for offenses that would not be considered crimes if committed by an adult. Given the non-serious nature of those offenses and the fact that community based alternatives are much less-expensive, more-effective, and avoid the damage incarceration and other types of residential placement does to status offenders, the continued confinement of thousands of youth for status offending represents one of the major shortcomings of the nation’s juvenile justice systems.
When you combine that depressing picture with another recent report lambasting the prison system for becoming de facto mental hospitals, you begin to realize that we should be exceedingly careful when sending children to detention centers, much less correctional facilities.
According to the report, Connecticut doesn’t fare well: approximately 18% of our inmates have mental health issues and the last remaining mental hospital (CVH) has fewer inmates than the Garner Correctional Facility in Newtown. It also costs approximately 2.5 times more to care for mentally ill inmates than it does others.
As you can well imagine, prisons are no place for people with mental health issues, not only because mental health is rarely the focus of incarceration but also because we don’t fund proper treatment and they are ill-equipped to provide it. The consequences for the patients can be catastrophic:
The consequences of failing to treat mentally ill inmates are “usually harmful and sometimes tragic,” according to the report, which represents the first compilation of state laws and practices governing such treatment. Without intervention, symptoms worsen, leading inmates to behave in disruptive and bizarre ways and become vulnerable to being beaten, raped or otherwise victimized, mutilating themselves or committing suicide, the study found. Inmates whose symptoms are uncontrolled also are more likely to be confined in isolation or placed in restraints and, as a group, contribute to the overcrowding of prisons and jails and the increased cost of corrections for both states and counties.
Not only are the troubled and mentally ill disproportionately sent to solitary confinement, but they’re kept in jail longer because we don’t know what to do with them:
According to the report, mentally ill people tend to stay in jail longer than other prisoners because they aren’t likely to get bail and also because they are often chronic rule-breakers. For example, according to the report, in Florida’s Orange County jail most inmates stay an average of 26 days, but mentally ill inmates are there for 51 days on average. Even worse is New York’s Rikers Island jail, where last month a homeless, mentally ill veteran, who’d been arrested for sleeping on the roof of a public housing project, “basically baked to death” in his cell. The average stay for an inmate at Rikers is 42 days. Mentally ill inmates get stuck there for an average of 215 days.
So when we examine the plight of Jane Doe, we must remember that there are hundreds others out there who may not be as sympathetic, but who are just as discriminated against and we must make sure that our legislators and our administrators think long and hard before subjecting juveniles and teenagers to the harsh realities of the detention and prison worlds, even if it is for made-up crimes.