Last year this article by Chris Vogel from the Houston Press won the Molly Award from the Texas Observer. It’s about teenagers locked in the Harris County (Houston), Texas jail system while awaiting a trial. They have not been convicted of any crime, or proven to pose a threat to any human being’s life or liberty; but if they are juveniles (14, 15, or 16 years old) who have been certified to be tried as adults, then they await their trial — often for over a year — in an isolation cage, with the lights on 24 hours a day, where they are held against their will apart from any human contact for 23 hours of every day. The 60 minutes they spend outside of the isolation torture cell is for
recreation, where they are, very often, shackled. This is, of course, an extreme form of psychological torture. Like many of the most extreme forms of psychological torture, it is inflicted on kids who haven’t yet been convicted of any crime, but is inflicted on them
For Their Own Good:
Harris County sheriff’s spokesman Lieutenant John Legg says the jail does not make special accommodations for juveniles.
They’re treated like any other inmate,he says.
Except for one glaring difference: isolation.
One reason for this, says Legg,is for their own safety.He says several years ago, teens were allowed into common areas with each other during the day, but they would fight and steal each other’s commissary items, so jail officials decided to keep them in their cells for a majority of the time. A choice, says Legg,which has had the desired result.
desired by Lieutenant John Legg, no doubt. I wonder how much his prisoners
desired the result of being tortured 23 hours a day for the sins of other prisoners they had no control over.
Like George, Diego [16 years old] says time drones on, blending into one seamless, never ending day. He is bored constantly. So bored, he says, that some days he can’t even concentrate to read. Occasionally, he catches himself talking to himself out loud. At times he’s thought he was hallucinating. Like many other teens in segregation, he’ll beat on his cell door and try to start a riot,sometimes because we didn’t get our full hour out of our cell and sometimes because there’s nothing else to do.
He says he can’t wait to turn 17 and get placed in with other inmates, or get convicted and go to prison, just so he can escape the isolation.
Meanwhile, here’s Dennis McKnight, who used to do the same thing to presumed-innocent juveniles awaiting trial in Bexar County (San Antonio), on the trials and travails of jailing presumed-innocent teenagers:
To the adult jailors, though, it all comes down to a choice between the lesser of two evils: general population or segregation and isolation.
They shouldn’t be held in 23-hour lockdown,admits McKnight,but unfortunately that’s where we have to put them for their safety and for everyone else’s safety. It’s a trade-off that we are forced to make.
Well, no. It’s a trade-off that they force their prisoners to make. Or, more specifically, they make the trade and their prisoners are forced to take the
goods. Even if they’d prefer being convicted if it just meant they could get out of the torture.
But I should be more sympathetic. It’s so hard, really, when you need a
safe cage to lock all these presumptively innocent teenagers up in for years at a time. Who knows where to
put them all? Vogel quotes Liz Ryan of Youth Justice saying,
It’s a Catch-22 … They don’t want the kid in isolation and they don’t want the kid in general population. They know it’s not safe either way. Well. I wonder if they’ve tried
putting them, you know, not in prison?
- It helps if you can revise the meaning of the word
safeso that it includes things like being
safelydriven out of your mind over the course of years.↩