Tuesday 10 February 2009

Abuses Against Young Offenders

In April 2010, I will be addressing the Twelfth United Nations Congress on the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders which is being held in Salvador, Brazil. What follows is my speech.

In 1980, I addressed the United Nations 6th Congress on the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders in Caracas about a need for a bill of rights for young offenders.The American delegation took up my torch and five years later, the General Assembly passed the Beijing Rules in 1985 as a response to my proposal. It was my hope that this would mean that there would be an end to abuses being heaped upon young offenders.

In 2005, while speaking at the 11th UN Congress held in Bangkok, I spoke of a continuation of abuses thrust against young offenders as many young offenders were still being abused even by those countries that signed the covenant. Again I had hoped that the abuses would stop. That was wishful thinking on my part. Now we are here in the Twelfth UN Congress in Salvador, Brazil and again I must sadly report that the abuses against the young offenders are still ongoing.

Young offenders locked in Afghanistan’s juvenile detention centres are often abused by police according to Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission and the United Nations. About half the juvenile offenders say police beat them during police investigations. Many are sexually abused by their jailors.

A federal lawsuit seeking $10 million in damages alleged that a male employee of Columbia Training School in Mississippi sexually assaulted a then 14-year-old female student multiple times. The employee began making sexual advances toward the girl in July 2005, according to the lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court in Jackson., Mississippi. The girl was taken to a different part of the Columbia campus in August 2005 for being disobedient, according to the suit. The employee transported the girl and she was left alone with the employee and no female supervision, according to court documents. During the night, the employee entered the girl's room and sexually assaulted her. The suit alleges the employee continued to engage in sexual acts with the girl throughout her time at Columbia. The girl reported being sexually assaulted to staffers at Columbia, but they made no attempt to formally investigate her claims.

Her claim is the latest in a series of legal problems at the state's two training schools. The schools serve a total of 550 youthful offenders - boys ages 10 to 17 at Oakley in Hinds County and girls 10 to 18 at Columbia. The U.S. Department of Justice sued Mississippi in 2003 over conditions at Columbia and Oakley. In 2005, the state admitted wrongdoing and entered into a four-year consent decree to make changes at the training schools. Under the agreement, a private monitor oversees Columbia and Oakley. The monitor's report released cited numerous civil rights violations.

That wasn’t the only correctional institution in the United States that has incidents of abuse against young offenders in their care. More than 13,000 claims of abuse were identified in juvenile correction centers around the country from 2004 through 2007 — a remarkable total, given that the total population of juvenile detainees was about 46,000 at the time the States were surveyed in 2007. Advocates for the young detainees contend that abuse by guards remains a major problem and that government authorities aren't doing enough to address the situation.

For the boys at the Hawaii Youth Correctional Facility, abuse came in the person of 50-year-old Gilbert Hicks and he wielded his authority emphatically. Hicks was convicted of sexual assault in October 2005 after he grabbed, squeezed and twisted a boy's testicles, according to a federal lawsuit. When the boy sought medical attention 10 days later because of pain and swelling, Hicks, who had worked at the facility for 24 years, taunted him by asking: "What, you want me to squeeze your genitals again?" Hicks allegedly abused two other boys the same way. He was convicted and all he got was five years probation and 90 days in jail to be served on weekends.

A grainy video taken at a Florida boot camp in January 2006 shows several guards striking a teen while restraining him. Six guards and a nurse were acquitted of manslaughter charges on Oct. 12 of that year after defense attorneys argued that the guards at the camp used acceptable tactics. In Maryland, a 17-year-old lost consciousness and died after he was held to the floor face down at a privately owned facility that was contracted by the state. Prosecutors say the staff waited 41 minutes after the boy was unresponsive before calling for help. Other restraint-related deaths were three boys — 17, 15 and 13 — in facilities in Tennessee, New York and Georgia, respectively.

While admittedly some youths make false allegations of mistreatment against their guards, there are cases of abuse not being reported because "many children are afraid of what would happen if they snitch on staff," according to Mark Soler, executive director of the Center for Children's Law and Policy in Washington D.C.

Lord Carlile of Berriew said he had been shocked by the treatment of under-18-year-olds in young offenders institutions, secure training centres and local authority secure children's homes in England and Wales. He said that physical force was used against youngsters as many as 15,512 times during a 21-month period. His year-long inquiry, commissioned by the Howard League for Penal Reform, followed the death of a 15-year-old boy in April 2004. The boy died after being restrained by three members of staff at the privately-run Rainsbrook secure training centre near Rugby, four days into the boy’s sentence.

In his report, he said in part; "If children in custody are expected to learn to behave well, they have to be treated well and the staff and various authorities have to set the very highest standards.The rule of law and protection of human rights should apply to all children equally, regardless of whether they are detained in custody or in the community.” unquote

These are just a few instances of abuse of a great many heaped upon young offenders in correctional facilities around the world.

In the September 3rd, 2008 issue of Medicine & Health / Psychology, quoting from a large-scale study led by Oxford University, it stated that 29 per cent of girls in detention aged between 10 and 19 years were diagnosed with major depression and that 10.6% of boys also suffer from major depression. It said that adolescent girls in young offender institutions are particularly vulnerable to depression. The researchers found that incidences of mental health problems in both boys and girls are many times greater in juvenile detention centres than in the general population. That has to be obvious when you consider that they are taken from their homes and thrown into correctional facilities where they are more likely to be abused by those that look after them and by fellow inmates than if they remained at home.

One in ten boys and one in five girls in young offender institutions have attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.The pattern of disruptive and antisocial behaviour for example where children consistently break rules and get into fights---are 10–20 times higher in girls in detention and 5 to 10 times higher in boys in detention than found in adolescents who are not in detention.

The high prevalence of mental disorders highlights the need for improved psychiatric care in juvenile justice and detention centres; the kind of care that is absent in most of these facilities.

As well as assessing suicide risk and substance abuse, prisons should consider specific screening for mood disorders especially in girls. Justice systems for juveniles offer the opportunity to pick up mental disorders and make a significant impact on public health. This is a chance to catch many vulnerable people who otherwise fall through the cracks. With conditions such as depression and psychosis, it is important to correct these problems early. The longer the problems are ignored, the worse the conditions become. These disorders may also increase risk of drug and alcohol misuse and perhaps indirectly, re-offending rates.

In the February 2, 2009 issue of Medicine & Health / Psychology, one of its articles submitted by University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine, the authors said that “People with mental illness alone are no more likely than anyone else to commit acts of violence. But mental illness combined with substance abuse or dependence elevates the risk for future violence.” unquote

We all know that when young offenders are finally released back into society, many will hang around former friends who will provide them with illicit drugs. Coupling that with their untreated mental illnesses and their anger at society, they may later become violently sick adult criminals who will cause considerable harm on unsuspecting members of society.

Although as many as 65 to75 percent of juvenile offenders have one or more psychiatric disorders, most juvenile correctional facilities do not have the resources to help them. To help address this problem, a new set of guidelines for treating the mental health needs of incarcerated youth was published in the October 2005 issue of the journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

The guidelines recommend educating clinicians on the unique system issues they will face in juvenile correctional facilities and to screen and monitor all juvenile offenders for mental health or substance abuse disorders. They also recommend referring all juvenile offenders who discuss or attempt suicide for more systematic mental health evaluation and treatment.

Professor Karen Bryan of Surrey University proved from her examination of young offenders that 50 per cent of them had substance abuse-induced memory loss, with all the implications that it has for educational failures. She said that the substance most blamed for that was cannabis. Forty-seven per cent reported that their talking was poor; 37 per cent of them had literary problems; 30 per cent had difficulty in speaking with others; 23 per cent scored less than an 11 year-old in comprehension tests; 20 per cent had definite learning difficulties; 17 per cent had hearing difficulties and 100 per cent had significant difficulties with either speech, language or communication sufficient to affect everyday functioning, compared with a figure of 1 per cent in the general population of the United Kingdom. The figures must be far worse where young offenders have difficulty in speaking English in an English-speaking country.

There are three young offender centres located in Edmonton, Calgary and Grande Prairie in the province of Alberta in Canada. They are; house open custody, secure custody and remand status young offenders. Educational and day programs are offered to meet academic and instructional needs in these facilities. All young offenders in custody under the age of 16 are required to attend school. School programs are offered through a three-way contract between Alberta Learning, the Alberta Solicitor General and a local school board or educational institution in the immediate area of the facility. The school programs provide for small classes with attention to individual needs and offer a full range of programs from elementary to high school, including remedial courses.

The Hong Kong Correctional Services Department has an Education Unit within its system. This Unit is headed by a principal who is assisted by three administrators. In addition, 36 teachers are assigned to different correctional institutions in Hong Kong. Since 2000, the Unit has adopted a mainstream education approach by using the Hong Kong Education and Manpower Bureau's special schools model to set up programs within the prisons, adopting the EMB secondary school curriculum (secondary 1 to secondary 5) and using the same textbooks commonly used in all secondary schools in Hong Kong. General subjects (e.g., English, Mathematics, Chinese, Liberal Studies) and practical or commercial subjects (e.g., bookkeeping, shorthand) are provided for young offenders through formal day classes (half day and compulsory) and are taught by qualified teachers (i.e., teachers with teaching certificates), with the aim of improving young offenders' language skills and practical knowledge. To ensure quality of teaching, regular appraisal of teachers' teaching performance is conducted. Remedial classes are established to help young offenders with learning difficulties. These classes are taught by teachers with special education training. Different interest groups have also been formed and young offenders are given the opportunity to join particular interest groups that may enrich and extend their learning. Young offenders are encouraged to participate in local and international public examinations so as to obtain public accreditation for future reintegration into society. These public examinations include the Hong Kong Certificate of Education Examination, Hong Kong Advanced Level Examination 3, University of London General Certificate of Education Examination 4, LCCI International Qualifications 5 and City and Guilds Pitman Qualification Examination 6. Obviously, the young offenders would have to be in the facility long enough to take these courses.

The only way that young offenders in correctional facilities can be protected from abuse and be assured of being given proper medical treatment and a proper education (if needed) is to have all such facilities monitored by outside organizations that are not answerable to the government but who do report their findings to the government and the legislative authorities of the state or nation.

I have said it before and I will repeat it again. Such monitors should include teachers, doctors, retired judges who worked in young offender courts, retired police officers who worked with young people and social workers who have worked with families. Further, I think it would be ideal to invited sport and entertainment celebrities to accompany these professionals if they are willing to volunteer their services in this endeavor. There is nothing that will get a kid’s attention than getting to meet someone they really admire.

The professionals should come with sufficient authority given to them by their government to investigate any complaints that young offenders may have and to listen to any suggestions that these young offenders may have to offer.

If a government chooses to monitor its own young offender facilities by itself, there is a risk that government employees (like many) will not do the job properly and the children will continue to suffer. Only outside monitors have a better chance to recommend changes and such recommendations being published in the media will bring a faulting government to face its sense of responsibility again.

I will sum up by quoting from my original speech I gave in Caracas when I first brought this problem to the delegates of the Sixth UN Congress in 1980. I said,

“If what is happening to these young offenders is being done in the name of justice, then justice is going under an assumed name.” unquote

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