More than 2,500 youth offenders serving life without parole sentences in United States adult prisons experience conditions violating basic human rights, including denied access to education, isolationism, rape, and assault, according to a new report.
A new 47-page report by Human Rights Watch, Against All Odds: Prison Conditions for Youth Offenders Serving Life without Parole Sentences in the United States (pdf), gathered research, interviews and correspondence over a six-year period, from correctional officials and youth offenders sentenced to die in prison, or, serving life without parole (LWOP).
“Children who commit serious crimes and who inflict harm on others should be held accountable,” said Alison Parker, director of the U.S. program at HRW and the report’s co-author, in a news release. “But neither youth offenders, nor any other prisoner, should endure any form of physical abuse.”
The report defines youth offenders as persons convicted of crimes committed while they were below the age of 18. Spelling and grammatical errors are left in place where prisoners’ survey responses or letters are quoted. Pseudonyms for offenders were used for protection.
Against All Odds calls youthful offenders’ survey responses, letters, and interviews
eloquent testimony to the stunting and desperation felt by youth serving life without parole sentences.
The new research reveals severe prison conditions - conditions HRW states “violate fundamental international human rights laws and standards” - youth offenders serving LWOP are facing. Often entering prison while still children, these offenders must cope with solitary confinement, increased risk of suicide, denied adequate mental health care, and the ever-present abuse. Some spend years with only fleeting human contact.
Of the 560 youth offenders in 11 states contacted by HRW for the report, none had managed to avoid prison violence. HRW noted prison officials condoning such violence become part of the “serious human rights abuse” problem.
Whether they enter prison at 14 or 20, young offenders serving life without parole are imprisoned at a time when education and skill development are most critical, the report notes, calling it an “essential developmental phase.” Research has found one of the most dramatic differences in brains of teens and adults is development of the frontal lobe, responsible for cognitive processing such as thought organization, planning, strategizing and actions.
The report calls for abolishing the sentence of LWOP for crimes committed by children, and states
Government officials responsible for youth offenders should reform confinement conditions to accommodate their particular vulnerabilities, needs, and capacities to mature, reflect upon the harm they have caused, and change.
Prolonged periods of time in isolated segregation or physical and sexual assault from other inmates and corrections staff are vulnerabilities youth offenders face.
“When I was young, it was disorienting and scary, like a fish thrown in water not knowing how to swim. Everyone seemed big and dangerous and threatening. I was challenged and intimidated a lot. Canines [sexual predators] stalked me, at at all times I expected to be attacked.” - Tyler Y., serving life without parole in Colorado
The report, based on testimony and survey responses over the six-year period, found
prison conditions youth offenders are subjected to can constitute cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment.
Many of the conditions faced by youth offenders serving LWOP are a violation of human rights, the report added. Most basic, these conditions interfere with the youth offender’s physical and psychological maturation. Conditions impeding natural human development is cruel punishment for youth offenders, to the point where it negates human dignity.
Additionally, they are oftentimes denied access to vocational and educational programs essential for their development and rehabilitation. Available to other inmates, these programs often exclude youth offenders serving LWOP because of the widespread belief inmates with a closer release date deserve these services more.
Although obtaining a GED or diploma is mandatory for prisoners under age 18 in Arkansas and Pennsylvania, other states such as California and Colorado make it an inmate’s choice.
However, once a youth offender receives his GED or equivalent or passes his eighteenth birthday, further educational opportunities in prison become an uphill battle, and LWOPs always start at the bottom of the hill.
Rehabilitative resources, including educational and vocational programs, are increasingly scarce and are being directed by correctional authorities away from those serving life without parole, according to interviews with authorities in 22 states. As such, these offenders are among the least likely in obtaining access to such services.
Denying these life without parole inmates access to work opportunities and existing programs are based on several factors. Among them, security classifications or housing placement procedures, not necessarily connected to their prison behavior, disqualifies them from the programs.
In other instances, shorter sentences have a priority, often making it impossible for youth offenders serving life without parole access to such services.
“We don’t want to put someone [in programs] who has 60 years [remaining on their sentence] instead of someone short term. Someone with 60 years will have forgotten what they learned when they got out,” said Angela Day, Secretary of Louisiana Association of Public, Community, and Adult Education, in a telephone interview with Human Rights Watch.
The report cites the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (applicable to all prisoners):
Provision shall be made for the further education of all prisoners capable of profiting thereby, including religious instruction in the countries where this is possible. The education of illiterates and young prisoners shall be compulsory and special attention shall be paid to it by the administration ... Recreational and cultural activities shall be provided in all institutions for the benefit of the mental and physical health of prisoners.
Although promoting successful reentry is gaining recognition as an effective tool in preventing recidivism, most prison programs are not engaged in such activity.
Few facilities provide specialized training, education or rehabilitation programs targeted to specific situations of youth offenders serving life without parole.
Research has found that mental illness is widespread among prisons’ incarcerated youth, with extremely high rates of suicide among imprisoned children. Against All Odds notes the Justice Department has reported an annual suicide mortality rate for youth under 18 in prison between 2000 and 2002 (52 per 100,000 inmates) at almost four times the number for all other age groups (14 or below per 100,000) inmates.
The mental strain in dealing with a sentence only ending in death is a reason many youth offenders consider suicide. HRW said it was aware of at least three successful suicides in the the last four years. One of the victims, Jerome, killed himself in January 2008. Less than six months before his death, he wrote HRW, saying, “LIfe without parole is as bad as the death penalty. This may be a proper sentence for some, but for juveniles I believe it is unfair treatment.”
Several factors linked to prison suicide are compounded by the inmate’s youth and the length of the LWOP sentence, including a loss of family and community relationships, additional legal problems, physical and emotional breakdown, victimization, and conflicts within the facility. An inability to cope with such stressors can result in varying degrees of suicidal behavior - from ideation to contemplation, attempt, or completion, the report noted.
The feeling of isolation and loneliness is an ongoing ordeal for youth offenders serving LWOP. One young man, five years after entering prison at age 15, wrote about prison life to HRW, “Every day I grow inside. But I have no room to grow in here.... It’s lonely. Your surrounded by 1,500 people and it’s still so lonely.” Another prisoner told HRW, “my heart aches, my spirit screams and my tears are never seen in its normal form.”
Some prisoners may use withdrawal and self-imposed isolation as a defensive mechanism to an anticipated loss of outside social support, psychologists suggest. However, this isolation takes a toll, sometimes leading to lengthened depression, apathy and generation of a profound feeling of hopelessness.
Fear, anxiety, and depression are a mainstay for youthful offenders serving LWOP sentences. For the HRW report, many youth offenders reported depression, and many were being treated for depression. Several youth offenders, male and female, told HRW about being withdrawn and not interacting with others. The report notes psychologists have observed some prisoners retreat deeply into themselves, trust no one, and adjust to prison stress by leading “lives of quiet desperation,” and stated
child offenders serving life without parole must face the possibility that their loneliness and hopelessness may continue until they die.
Most prisoners lose family connections and social support, the report notes, but the difference for youth offenders serving LWOP is their higher degree of dependence on such relationships, compared to older inmates. Loss of these relationships at an earlier age may make the psychological damage of a longer duration inherently more profound.
Equally as stressful for some is the thought of facing family members while in prison. One noted the emotional difficulty in dealing with those they know they will never see again outside prison, responding to the HRW survey,
Then you’re forced to sit there watching your Mom’s heart breaking in front of your eyes and all you can do is hold her hand because your heart is breaking too. So, at the end of every visit, I hope and pray that they never come back. As much as it hurts not to see them, it hurts that much more when I do. It’s just a reminder of what exactly I’m missing. Pure, unconditional love.
HRW stated the life without parole sentence for youth offenders gives them the message “they are devoid of potential.” The report quotes one female offender who said, “I feel like they threw the key away on me.”
The report listed examples of youth offenders who, as they have aged and matured in prison, are longing for the chance to make a contribution to society.
“I would be ever grateful, in fact, for the chance to spend my life now for some good reason. I would go to the most dangerous parts of Afghanistan or Israel, or jump on the first manned mission to Mars.... f the state were to offer me some opportunity to end my life doing some good, rather than a slow-wasting plague to the world, it would be a great mercy to me.” - Troy L., youth offender serving life without parole in Arkansas
The report found that, within the past six years, three international human rights treaty oversight bodies have determined the U.S. is out of compliance with its treaty obligations.
Among its findings, Against All Odds recommends the president of the U.S. submit the Convention on the Rights of the Child to the Senate for consent to ratify the treaty without reservation. It calls on Congress to pass legislation with a requirement the DOJ’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention monitor confinement conditions for youth offenders, including those who are now young adults, in the adult criminal justice system.
The HRW report also calls on the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics to create and publish annual statistics on youth offenders in the adult criminal justice system, including admissions counts, confinement conditions, and actual access to educational, vocational, and other services.
Youth offenders in state and federal detention and correctional facilities should be provided access to all programs, regardless of severity of their crimes or sentence length. All steps necessary should be taken in preventing, detecting, responding to, and monitoring physical and sexual violence against youth offenders in these facilities.
Prolonged solitary confinement for youth offenders should be ended. Social, psychological, medical, and physical care and protection should be provided to all youth offenders.
Lastly, HRW recommends
state and federal governments abolish the life without parole sentence for all youth offenders and abolish the automatic trial of youth in adult criminal courts and their mandatory incarceration in adult prisons.