Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Saving  youth  at  risk

In November 1985, the General Assembly of the United Nations passed the bill of rights for young offenders which are actually called the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules on the Administration of Juvenile Justice. These rules have an effect on the wellbeing of millions upon millions of young offenders worldwide.

Although the UN knows how these Rules came about since they have it recorded in their historical files, very few people are aware as to how they were brought about. Now you will know how this happened.

In 1980, it was the Year of the Child and the United Nations decided that one of the main topics of the Sixth United Nations Congress on the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders which was to be held in September of that year in the City of Caracas, Venezuela, would be about the treatment of young offenders.                                                                   

I was invited to attend that Congress (the UN name for their conferences) as a speaker on two of the topics with respect to the treatment of young offenders and capital punishment.

During my research on young offenders, I came across an American document which outlined the horrific abuses heaped upon young offenders who were in American federal young offender facilities.

In one such facility, they conducted medical experiments on the children without their consent or the consent of their parents and when some of them died as a result of the experiments, the young offender facility buried the children in unmarked graves and then they told the parents of the deceased children that their children had escaped and that they didn`t know where they were.

In another facility, the head of the facility was a psychiatrist and he ordered that when a young offender was brought into the facility, he was to be placed in a cell for six months and during that period of time; the child would see no light and hear no human voice. His theory was that after six months of that extreme form of isolation, the child`s mind would be blank and then the psychiatrist could change the child`s ways so that he or she would be a model citizen after that. Needless to say, the concept was absolute nonsense.

For many years prior to that and even now, there was and still is protection for adult prisoners. It is called the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules on the Treatment of Prisoners. But nowhere in those Rules does it have anything in them that would protect young offenders. After being apprised of that fact, I decided that I would present a paper to the Congress that would prompt the attendees to seriously think about my proposal that the UN create a bill of rights for young offenders. I even suggested some of the ways in which they could be protected.

There are three groups of people who attend these UN congresses. First are the delegates from each of the 122 nations that were represented the Congress in 1980. Nowadays, there are over 190 member states of the UN.  Some delegations such as the Americans have at least a hundred delegates attending these Congresses.  Secondly, there are the Non-Governmental Organizations such as Amnesty International, the International Red Cross, and the Vatican, just to name three of the many NGOs attending these Congresses. And thirdly, there are the experts, such as police officials, judges, wardens of prisons, parole and probation officers, law professors and criminologists such as myself attending and speaking at these Congresses. The NGOs and the experts cannot vote or bring in resolutions. Their role is to advise the delegates and like the delegates, each speaker of each of the NGOs and each Expert who wishes to address the Congress has ten minutes allotted for him or her to speak.

I arranged with the chairman of the session dealing with the treatment of young offenders for me to be the last person to address the delegates and everyone else attending that particular session. I will never forget the expressions of the faces of the American delegates as I spoke of the abuses of their young offenders by their federal young offender facilities. It was like looking at the gloomy faces of mourners at a funeral.                     

When I finished reading my speech, the head of the American delegation then asked the chairman for permission to respond to my allegations. The chairman then told the delegate that according to the Rules of the Congress, once the experts finish speaking, the session is finished for the day.

The head of the American delegation persisted by saying that the American delegation wished to make an important announcement. The chairman then granted the American delegate’s request adding that he had five minutes to speak and that I would be given another five minutes to address the Congress after the American delegate spoke. Unfortunate, I had left the conference hall to meet with other delegates about my upcoming speech on capital punishment so I didn’t hear the statement of the chairman. 

The head of the American delegation admitted that what I had said about the American federal young offender facilities was quite right. Ironically enough, one of the American delegates was the author of the report of the abuses I had been referring to in my speech. The head of the American delegation then said that his delegation was going to bring in a resolution during the next morning’s session in which they would need nine countries to second their resolution. The resolution was to be and ended up being for the UN secretariat to conduct meetings around the world to draft up my proposed bill of rights for young offenders.

That night, I was invited to meet members of the American delegation at the home of the Canadian Ambassador to Venezuela. When I got there, I was invited to sit with them and assist the Americans by putting in my own thoughts with respect to the draft of their resolution.

The next morning they presented their resolution at the session and all the nations present voted in favour of the resolution. Conferences were held all over the world and at the conference held in Beijing, China, the completed draft was drawn up for approval by the delegates attending the Seventh UN Congress being held in Milan, Italy. I attended that Congress and smiled with excitement as I listened to each of the 122 nations present vote in favour of the bill of rights for young offenders. Then two months later, the General Assembly passed the Rules which are also referred to as the Beijing Rules.  

Now one would think that after the bill of rights for young offenders was a covenant of the UN, the abuses would stop. Alas, they didn’t. It seems that in the United States, each of the individual states has its own legislation as to how young offender facilities are to function. Some of them were run by private enterprises. The abuses in some of those facilities were horrendous.

In 2005, I was invited to speak at the Twelfth United Nations Congress on the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders held in Bangkok, Thailand. I then presented my first report to the UN on the status of young offender facilities since the passing of the Beijing Rules by the General Assembly a quarter of a century earlier. 

I said in my speech that a 48-page report made public in 2003 by investigators in the United States painted a bleak picture of some privately run institutions as debilitating dumping grounds for troubled children. Woefully under financed, understaffed and ill-equipped, the institutions and their poorly trained workers doled out a volatile mix of physical and verbal abuse and in some institutions, mandatory Bible study, but at the same time, they withheld basic medical care and a decent education—all in violation of the Covenant of the United Nations bill of rights for young offenders.

In my presentation before the delegates in the Bangkok conference, I said that a report by the Assistant Attorney General of Mississippi submitted on June 19, 2003 to Ronnie Musgrove, his state’s Governor, had pointed out to him that abuses were taking place in two different private correctional facilities for young offenders facilities—the Oakley and Columbia Training Schools in Mississippi. Boys and girls aged from 10 to 17 were being hogtied for hours, pepper sprayed for disobedience, forced to eat their own vomit during exercises, or stripped naked and locked in a dark room for days because of suicide attempts. These were just some of the abuses going on in privately run correctional facilities for young offenders in various states in the United States.                                                 

The nurse at another boy’s training school was actually seen immunizing two children for Hepatitis B with the same needle. Dental care was nonexistent, and the dental clinic at that training school was a mess of mouse droppings, dead roaches on the floor and the nurse was using long-expired medicines. 

In my presentation, I recommended that such facilities should be closed down and re-opened and operated by state correctional officials. Later, a number of those facilities in various states were in fact closed down.    

The stupidity and brutality is not entirely in the domain of privately-run juvenile correctional facilities in the US. In one provincial government correctional institution for young offenders in a large Canadian city, a sixteen-year-old boy was constantly teased by other inmates and made to eat his own vomit off the floor. He had had enough of this brutal treatment, and after he was locked in his cell, he wrapped a bed sheet around his neck and hanged himself with the other end of the bed sheet tied to a metal bar at the top of his bunk.                                                                                                              

The guard, who walked by and saw him hanging, wasn’t able to cut the dying boy down because he had been forbidden to carry a knife when doing his rounds. Ironically, guards in Canadian adult prisons are permitted to carry such knives on the night watch for the purpose of cutting down inmates who are committing suicide, He reached for his radio and finding it missing, he left the youth hanging by his neck and walked to a control station at the end of the range to summon help. He not only walked to the control centre to avoid what he perceived would be panic but he stopped on the way back to put three youths who were in an open area back into their cells—a process that involved unlocking and then re-locking the three cells. When he finally got back to the victim’s cell, the boy was near death. ……

The prison nurse who after being informed that the boy was hanging by his neck, neglected to bring any resuscitation equipment with her and had to return to the health station for it, and another officer who arrived at the cell could not cut the youth down because he too did not have with him the C-shaped knife used for such emergencies.
This mentally ill youth, who was awaiting trial on charges of stealing cheques from relatives, managed to end his life on October 1st, 2002 while under a suicide watch, He died hours later despite being rushed to a hospital.

The stupidity of the staff occurred that night despite the fact that at least five other inmates in that correctional facility had earlier attempted to hang themselves using sheets. The 130-bed detention centre for 16- and 17-year-old youths waiting trial had previously been condemned by that province’s children’s advocate as being chaotic and unsafe. It too was finally closed.

Let me quote what I said at the Congress in 1980. I said, “If what is going on in these correctional institutions for young offenders is being done in the name of justice, then justice is going under an assumed name.”
What we need are adults who have been successful in their own lives to advise young people how to get ahead and how to avoid problems that are often too common with children and teenagers.

George Shuvalo, Canada’s greatest boxer and I have met and talked several times together after three of his sons died from overdosing on illicit drugs and his wife committed suicide, I went to George’s home to offer my condolences. Later I wrote him a letter in which I told him that there was no one in the world better suited than him to talk to young people in the schools about the dangers of ingesting illicit drugs. Within a year, George was going to the schools with the message that illicit drugs will kill them. We need more adults like him doing this kind of volunteer work in young offender correctional facilities.                      

I envision that a day will eventually come about when society fully recognizes that all children, even young offenders should be loved, valued and given an opportunity to fulfill their potential without suffering from the indignities and abuse heaped upon them by those who are their peers within our communities.

Let’s face it. Our own children and those of our neighbours are our future. We don’t want our future to be mangled because we didn’t care about the well-being of all of our children when we as adults had the responsibility of caring for them.                                      

Young children and teenagers need to feel that they are wanted and protected. They need to participate in activities that will make them believe that whatever they learn in their formative years, it will in all likelihood turn them into caring and responsible adults that we and they alike, want them to be.  

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