"It has only happened two times to me"--Conditions in Children's Institutions
Human Rights Watch World Report 1998


Conditions in Children's Institutions

"E.B.T.R.. [East Baton Rouge Louisiana Training School], that's a messed up place. The guards will beat you. One of them named Mr. O, he has a thing called a `house party'; if you work on weekends, he wake you up at 5 a.m. He calls you in the back where we take showers and beats you for a whole hour. When we go to mess hall to eat we have to count, and he tells you to come see, then he calls you into the washroom and beats you up and another sergeant comes to beat you. It has only happened two times to me . . . .'New jacks' come in talking, and they beat them up for nothing. This boy at EBR with me, a guard broke his arm with a broom . . . if you tell a counselor, all it's going to do is make it worse."-- Fifteen-year old boy's letter to Human Rights Watch in 1995.

In 1997, throughout the world, children were confined in correctional institutions-sometimes adult prisons, sometimes juvenile "training schools"-in conditions that hindered their development and damaged their health. The general public was rarely concerned about these children, viewing them as "predators," or particularly vicious criminals. Few voices were raised in concern for these children's human rights. Children in confinement rarely received education, vocational training, psychological treatment or other forms or rehabilitation. They were often held in filthy, unsanitary conditions with no privacy. All of these children eventually return to society; failure to prepare them for their return was not only cruel but shortsighted-the social costs were enormous.

Children in confinement have often suffered doubly, having been taken into custody only after having previously suffered abuse at the hands of their families or in the streets they have made their homes. Police violence against street children in Bulgaria, India, Kenya and Guatemala (discussed above) was accompanied by appalling conditions of confinement. In Guatemala, for example, abused or neglected children ( including rape victims), runaways, and others were mixed in with violent offenders. Eight-year old abuse victims were locked up with seventeen-year-old convicted murderers. Children received no formal education, psychological treatment, or vocational training. These conditions contravened international standards as set forth in the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child (Article 40), a binding treaty to which Guatemala is party, and norms such as the Standard Minimum Rules for the Administration of Juvenile Justice, the U.N. Rules for the Protection of Juveniles Deprived of their Liberty, and the U.N. Guidelines for the Prevention of Juvenile Delinquency.

Shockingly poor conditions for children in correctional institutions existed in the United States as well. State and federal legislators have enacted laws that required trying children in adult courts at younger and younger ages: twelve years old in Colorado, for example. Exaggerated fears of youthful crime led to the incarceration of more and more children and extremely overcrowded institutions in many states, in spite of the FBI's finding that only 7 percent of the juvenile arrests in the U.S. in 1994 were for violent crimes. Legislators were willing to provide money for bricks and mortar, but reluctant to provide money for education, rehabilitation and treatment of children in their care.

Conditions for children in correctional institutions in the three U.S. states of Louisiana, Georgia, and Colorado, have been the object of Human Rights Watch inquiries and reports. There was pervasive brutality by guards against children in Louisiana's four secure institutions. Children were handcuffed and then beaten by guards; children were put in isolation for long periods. These findings, published in 1995, led the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to investigate these four facilities. In 1997 the DOJ issued a damning report: it referred to "life-threatening" abuses, and documented extreme brutality by guards, as well as a failure to protect children from sexual and physical abuse. The DOJ threatened to sue the state, and was negotiating with the state to ensure significant reforms.

In Georgia's children's correctional institutions many children were held in overcrowded, squalid, and unsanitary institutions with inadequate programming. Children were held in four-point restraints, tied by wrists and ankles to a bed, a technique used as a punishment and also for children considered possibly suicidal. Isolation was used as punishment (one child was held this way for sixty-three consecutive days), although international standards forbid isolating children at all. These findings were set out in a 1996 Human Rights Watch report. Again, the DOJ took on the case, and in 1997 opened a formal investigation into the Georgia institutions; that investigation is ongoing.

Research in eight Colorado institutions in 1996 found that virtually every incarceration facility for children was seriously overcrowded (some at two-and-a-half times capacity) and unsafe. The staffs used restraints excessively and punitive segregation; children who could learn and be supervised within the community and presented no threat to public safety were routinely committed; children were sent to facilities out of state, away from their families, or to private contract facilities where the state exercised little control over day-to-day operations or the quality and training of staff. Children complained of chronic hunger; and in several facilities incidents of physical abuse by staff were reported.

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