Archive for Humane Exposures

New report Shows Child Homelessness on the Rise in U.S.

The number of homeless children in the U.S. has surged in recent years to an all-time high, amounting to one child in every 30, according tPhoto by Susan Madden Lankfordo a comprehensive state-by-state report that blames the nation’s high poverty rate, the lack of affordable housing and the impacts of pervasive domestic violence.

 
Photo by Susan Madden Lankford

Titled “America’s Youngest Outcasts,” the report just issued by the National Center on Family Homelessness calculates that nearly 2.5 million American children were homeless at some point in 2013. The number is based on the Department of Education’s latest count of 1.3 million homeless children in public schools, supplemented by estimates of homeless pre-school children not counted by the DOE.The problem is particularly severe in California, which has one-eighth of the U.S. population but accounts for more than one-fifth of the homeless children, with an estimated total of nearly 527,000.

Carmela DeCandia, director of the national center and a co-author of the report, noted that the federal government has made progress in reducing homelessness among veterans and chronically homeless adults. She said:

The same level of attention and resources has not been targeted to help families and children. As a society, therefore, we’re going to pay a high price in human and economic terms.

Child homelessness increased by 8% nationally from 2012 to 2013, according to the report, which warned of potentially devastating effects on children’s educational, emotional and social development, as well as on their parents’ health, employment prospects and parenting abilities.

The report included a composite index ranking the states on the extent of child homelessness, efforts to combat it and the overall level of child well-being. States with the best scores were Minnesota, Nebraska and Massachusetts, while at the bottom were Alabama, Mississippi and California.

Shahera Hyatt, director of the California Homeless Youth Project, claimed that the crux of the problem is the state’s high cost of living, coupled with insufficient affordable housing.

People think, ‘Of course we are not letting children and families be homeless,’ so there’s a lot of disbelief. But California has not invested in this issue.

Hyatt, 29, was homeless on and off throughout adolescence, starting when her parents were evicted when she was in 7th grade. At 15, she and her older brother took off and survived by sleeping in the tool sheds, backyards and basements of acquaintances.

She recalls:

Terms like ‘couch surfing’ and ‘doubled-up’ sound a lot more polite than they are in practice. For teenagers, it might be exchanging sex for a place to stay or staying someplace that does not feel safe because they are so mired in their day-to-day survival needs.

The new report by the National Center on Family Homelessness — a part of the private, nonprofit American Institutes for Research — says remedies for child homelessness should include an expansion of affordable housing, education and employment opportunities for homeless parents, and specialized services for the many mothers rendered homeless due to domestic violence. Efforts to obtain more resources to combat child homelessness are complicated by debate over how to quantify it.

H.U.D. conducts an annual one-day count of homeless people that encompasses shelters, as well as parks, underpasses, vacant lots and other locales. Its latest count, for a single night in January 2013, tallied 610,042 homeless people, including 130,515 children.

Defenders of H.U.D.’s method say it’s useful in identifying the homeless people most in need of urgent assistance. Critics contend that H.U.D.’s method grossly underestimates the extent of child homelessness and results in inadequate resources for local governments to combat it. They prefer the Education Department method that includes homeless families who are staying in cheap motels or doubling up temporarily in the homes of friends or relatives.

Bruce Lesley, president of the nonprofit First Focus Campaign for Children, says:

Fixing the problem starts with adopting an honest definition. Right now, these kids are sort of left out there by themselves.

Lesley’s group and some allies have endorsed a bill introduced in Congress, with bipartisan sponsorship, that would expand H.U.D.’s definition to correlate more closely with that used by the Education Department. However, the bill doesn’t propose any new spending for the hundreds of thousands of children who would be added to the H.U.D. tally.

Shahera Hyatt, of the California Homeless Youth Project, says most of the homeless schoolchildren in her state aren’t living in shelters:

It’s often one family living in extreme poverty going to live with another family that was already in extreme poverty. Kids have slept in closets and kitchens and bathrooms and other parts of the house that have not been meant for sleeping.

A Few State Juvenile Facilities Strive to Foster ‘Family Engagement’

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Inmates performing Shakespeare near Boston.
Photo courtesy of Juvenile Justice Information Exchange

Programs in Texas, Massachusetts and Indiana illustrate efforts to foster “family engagement,” which has become a buzzword in juvenile justice circles. It’s about building bridges between family members — or other key figures in youths’ lives — and the staff at juvenile facilities that house the youngsters.

Inside juvenile correctional facilities in Massachusetts, young offenders study Shakespeare, rehearse for weeks and then perform the bard’s works before their relatives.

In Texas, incarcerated youths lead their relatives to schools inside juvenile facilities, where they introduce their teachers and showcase their work in classrooms. A state juvenile justice staffer likens the visits to the sort of open house you might expect at a public school.

Indiana juvenile authorities have greatly expanded visiting hours at their facilities, and even late-night visits can be arranged to accommodate a family member’s schedule. For those who can’t make it in person, Indiana facilities — like those in some in other states — offer virtual visits through videoconferencing technology such as Skype.

Experts, supported by a growing body of research, say fostering family engagement improves incarcerated youths’ behavior, helps families feel more connected, reduces disciplinary incidents and boosts the staff morale. Moreover, strengthening these connections better prepares youths for a return to the home or community upon release — and reduces repeat offenses.

Nonetheless, critics complain that for all the progress in building better relations with families, much of the U.S. juvenile justice system in the is still beset by brutal conditions, rampant violence – including sexual assaults of inmates by staff – and widespread use of the psychological torture that is solitary confinement.

Historically, relations between family members and juvenile facility staff have been marked by mistrust and, at times, actual hostility. In fact, the first U.S. juvenile facilities explicitly tried to isolate kids from their families. Staff at many juvenile facilities still act as if family members are to blame for youths’ offenses and therefore treat the family members with disdain and disrespect.

Family members often view officials at juvenile facilities not as allies, but as obstacles, to the ostensible goal of the juvenile justice system: rehabilitation of youthful offenders.

Peter Forbes, commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Youth Services said:

A lot of the parents line up against custodial agencies. They see us as an extension of the court system and the child welfare system that have been removing the kids from their homes and that they’ve had a really bad experience with over a period of years.

“You have to work against that dynamic. You have to be deliberate about how you’re going to break that down. In Massachusetts, we’ve definitely stepped away from the mindset that the parents are the problem.”

Parents and other family members play an integral part of the success of the state’s innovative work with the nonprofit Actors’ Shakespeare Project, based in the Boston suburb of Somerville, MA. Family members and friends form the appreciative audiences for the incarcerated youths’ forays into performances of the bard’s work, such as the comedic play “As You Like It” at the Zara Cisco Brough Center in Westborough, MA.

Actors’ Shakespeare Project, which calls the program “Incarcerated Youth At Play,” says the themes of some Shakespeare plays, such as justice and revenge, violence and grief and the power of love and redemption, can resonate with today’stroubled youths .

Shakespearean “teaching artists” from the nonprofit work for 3-16 weeks with incarcerated youths to create ensembles. English, language arts, theater and social studies teachers in the facilities help youths explore Shakespeare’s plays and write, rehearse and perform within the context of classroom learning.

Sometimes simple things mean a lot to family members, who are often guilt-ridden over what they might have done differently and racked by anxiety. Simply calling families to ask about their schedules instead of just mailing out a notification of a youth’s next monthly treatment plan meeting and holding parent-teacher nights can help break down barriers.

Neelum Arya, research director of the Program in Public Interest Law and Policy at the University of California, Los Angeles, law school, labels such outreach “family-driven justice” in an article in the current issue of the Arizona Law Review. She writes:

We’re in the first decade of this, so we have a long way to go. I would definitely say that there are a few shining stars, but by and large, most facilities in the country are not operating with a particular understanding of how to better involve families in the system. The fact is that at this point, the examples are few and far between.

The Texas Juvenile Justice Department has made family engagement a top priority as part of efforts to overhaul the department in the aftermath of a scandal over rampant sexual abuse. Among other reforms, the department developed a 12-provision “Parents Bill of Rights” and a family handbook detailing facility policies.

Arya  points to the widely cited “Missouri Model” and lauds the state for putting a premium on family engagement and for viewing families as experts. Missouri’s Division of Youth Services state advisory board includes parents of two youths who had been incarcerated.

The division assigns a specific “service coordinator” to work with each incarcerated youth’s family, starting within days of sentencing and continuing throughout the youth’s time with Missouri’s DYS. The service coordinators make home visits to meet with families and put them more at ease than they would be in an institutional setting.

Most youths are placed within 50 miles of their homes, with flexible visitation policies and transportation offered to families.

Nationally there is widespread agreement among families that the majority of juvenile detention and corrections facilities are geared towards punishment, not treatment, and that they are inappropriate for their children. Even the decor of a facility can make a “huge difference. Is children’s artwork on the wall? Are there positive examples of children succeeding or examples of messages saying your children are constantly in trouble?

Sue Badeau, a longtime Philadelphia juvenile justice advocate strikes a cautionary note about the progress of family engagement. Badeau said it’s much easier for agencies to adopt cosmetic or highly visible changes like expanding visiting hours or scheduling events than to genuinely change the an institution’s culture  so that its staff values family engagement.

Badeau and her husband are the parents of six children who have spent time in the juvenile or adult criminal justice systems. In 2011, she served a one-year fellowship focused on family engagement with the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention and has spoken and written widely on the subject.

Badeau said:

The real work comes for systems to really determine whether they value the role of families. Even if they had a party or improved the visiting hour schedule or something like that, the question is how are they doing as far as training with their staff on the role of families? Do they value families? What do they see in terms of how they engage families in the actual planning for their child’s programming and treatment and  how their lives will be once they leave the facilities?

Staff must be trained to build positive relationships with youth and their families. Family engagement should be part of staffers’ job descriptions and one of the skills included in staff evaluations.

Youth and their families should have some say in choosing which relatives or others such as mentors, coaches or family friends the facilities should deal with. Badeau pointed to innovations including “family-to-family peer support” and said families should be tapped to help train facility staff and sit on advisory boards and similar groups at local, state and federal levels.

Oregon, known for its progressive juvenile justice policies, has created a family engagement coordinator position to improve the connection between facilities and family members or other adults who play a big role in youths’ lives.

Faith Love,  family engagement coordinator for the Oregon Youth Authority, said:

Youths’ behavior may be linked to their home life. By connecting with the families, OYA can help address unmet needs for food, shelter and employment as well as medical, mental health and substance abuse treatment. Adults in youths’ lives may need coaching and support to help incarcerated youths, sometimes involved with multiple systems.

Most of the families we work with are either exhausted from or unsure how to deal with the behavior of their child. They may have previously sought help from multiple sources. Some families are hurt, ashamed and not sure of how best to become involved. It is extremely rare for any parent not to want something good and better for their child.

Sometimes, encouraging family engagement means paying for hotel stays, bus tickets or gasoline so the relatives can visit youths in facilities far from their homes.

Among efforts to increase family engagement in other states:

•Ohio juvenile authorities collaborated with the nonprofit, New York City-based Vera Institute of Justice on the “Families as Partners: Supporting Youth Reentry” program to encourage more frequent visitation and correspondence and increase family involvement in youths’ treatment and re-entry plans. Working with two juvenile facilities for boys, Vera researchers found increased family visitation improved youths’ behavior and school performance. Vera highlighted the importance of visitation and suggested that other juvenile facilities change visitation polices and take other steps to promote more frequent visitation.

•The “Baby Elmo Program” being piloted in Santa Clara County, CA and elsewhere, focuses on strengthening relationships between incarcerated teen fathers and their infants. The project relies on a standardized curriculum for the 10-week course. Facility personnel use “Sesame Street” videos to teach the fathers ways to interact with their babies. Many of the incarcerated youths did not have a strong father figure in their lives. Early results are promising, showing fathers the big role they can play in their children’s development and helping the babies develop bonds with their fathers.

•The New Jersey Juvenile Justice Commission has issued a request for proposals to assess the “family friendliness” of current visitation at the New Jersey Training School for Boys in Monroe Township; to provide staff training on the importance of family engagement and ways to encourage it, including peer family advocacy and support; and to help families navigate the juvenile justice system. The training school, which has come under criticism for extensive use of solitary confinement, is New Jersey’s largest juvenile facility, holding up to about 200 boys.

Kevin M. Brown, JJC’s executive director, said:

We need to challenge ourselves to view policies and practices through the eyes of family members, in order to assess whether they are family-friendly and actively promote and support family involvement. If we can help families, we can help young people succeed.

Kim Godfrey, executive director of nonprofit, Braintree, MA-based Performance-Based Standards, which helps agencies and facilities monitor and improve conditions and treatment, noted that most youths will return to their families upon release. He said:

All kids want to be with their families, and kids leave the juvenile justice system to go back to the community and be with their families. And we need to support that relationship and strengthen it, rather than sever it, while they’re in custody.

 

Alaska Conference and Programs Seek to Keep Women from Re-entring Prison

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Photo by Susan Madden Lankford

Nine years ago, Alaska Supreme Court Chief Justice Dana Fabe put together an annual  conference to help women inmates at the Hiland Mountain Correctional Center in Eagle River make the transition back into society after release.

The all-day conference sought to reduce the rate of repeat offenders by holding workshops on topics that range from probation tips to securing housing and employment to simple solutions for leading an overall healthy lifestyle.

 

Justice Fabe said:

As judges, we impose sentences on offenders and don’t see them until they come back to the courthouse if they’ve re-offended. When they’re inside, they don’t have many choices; the institution makes choices for them. And so we’re trying to help present healthy choices for them to make when they are outside.

After justice is served by way of a prison sentence, the road to re-enter society can often be unfair,  but one message that was clear at this year’s conference was: successful re-entry is possible.

However, a successful transition takes help, from an addiction support group to a probation officer to anyone who has walked a similar path. Former inmate, Rachel Burkhart, a panel member at the conference, told about 100 women who were where she once was how she went from being in-and-out of incarceration to finding a career in law.

Burkhart said:

Most of all, successful re-entry takes a willing heart, and sometimes slow and steady wins the race. I was used to a hard and fast life, but after failed drug tests and multiple incarceration periods, I got to the point where I didn’t want to risk my freedom anymore. I actually took those really slow steps, from being placed on house arrest to gaining sobriety to, eventually, being able to finally gain my independence.

“No money I ever made before was legal money. But my main concern became how to be a standup American citizen, to learn how to be an independent and strong woman.

Burkhart networked her way to a job and then met her current boss, who employed her at a law firm, two years later, even though she lacked experience..

Inmate Tammi Charlesworth is set to be released in December of this year. The 34-year-old, has repeatedly been incarcerated over the past 13 years, and she is currently serving time for drug-related charges.

She said at the conference of her multiple chances at reentry:

I haven’t successfully made it , but this time, I had two years to serve, and so I utilized my time to better myself. And now I just need to make sure that bridge from incarceration to the community is as smooth as possible, because I am really looking forward to a reunion with my three children.

All the inmates at the recent event were within a year of their release dates. Fabe said the female inmates can only sign up for the conference if they’ve been working their respective treatment programs, like Charlesworth has.

Charlesworth, who has never been gainfully employed, concluded:

I’ve lived a pretty selfish life, but I’m kind of excited to start living at 34 when most people start at 18.

Homelessness in Tokyo, the World’s Largest City, is 0.03% of NYC’s–and is Dropping

Photo by Susan Madden Lankford

Photo by Susan Madden Lankford

The number of homeless residents in New York City, the largest U.S. city, reached a record high this month at more than 56,000 people. Tokyo, the most populous city in the world, recently hit a homeless record of its own: just 1,697 homeless–the low since records began being kept in 2002.

Even more surprising than the discrepancy in homeless populations between the two cities is the fact that Tokyo, at 13.4 million people, is larger than New York City (8.4 million people) and Los Angeles (3.9 million people) combined. While the rate of homelessness in New York is currently 67 for every 10,000 people, in Tokyo there is just one homeless individual for every 10,000 city residents.

Why the massive discrepancy in rates of homelessness between two of the most populous cities in the world? As with most socioeconomic phenomena, there are a number of contributing factors. First and foremost, income inequality is a massive and growing problem in the United States, while Japan has historically had one of the lowest rates of inequality among developed countries.

However, income inequality can’t be the only explanation for Japan’s success combatting homelessness, especially considering that the country’s inequality situation has actually worsened over the past few decades. Where Japan is really surpassing the United States, instead, is in the social safety net it offers its citizens. It begins with the Japanese Constitution, which unlike the U.S. document guarantees its citizens “the right to maintain the minimum standards of wholesome and cultured living.” As such, the country has a far more protective safety net than the United States has.

Also, Tokyo has been taking extra steps to fight homelessness, including the city’s temporary housing provision and employment training. Also, the homeless population in Tokyo has been decreasing as it got older, because older homeless people tend to have health issues, so they apply for social welfare and stop living on the streets.

Another contributing factor is that Japanese tend to have a stronger support system from their families than is found in the United States. The tradition of Japanese families remaining tight-knit and supportive of each member is undeniable.

However, Japan is not superior to the United States in every aspect of homelessness, nor it is a perfectly fair comparison. For instance, there is far more cultural and racial diversity in the United States than in Japan. And while homeless people in the United States face some barriers to voting, like obtaining photo identification in those 14 states that require it, the barriers are significantly steeper in Japan, where shelters and temporary accommodations cannot be used as an official place of residence when registering to vote.

However, none of this changes the fact that on a given night, more than 600,000 people are homeless in the United States, while in all of Japan, that number is just 7,500.

South Bronx Community Corrections Programs Keeps Kids from Returning to Crime

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Photo from South Bronx Community Connections

South Bronx teens who could have been locked up for offenses ranging from theft to assault to armed robbery instead planted vegetables at an urban farm, painted a mural to honor a community activist, staged a youth talent show and organized “safe parties” for teens at a local community center – away from the gunfire and stabbings outside.

The youths came up with a smorgasbord of ways to improve their impoverished Bronx, N.Y., neighborhood as part of the nonprofit Community Connections for Youth’s South Bronx Community Connections (SBCC) initiative.

By agreeing to participate for at least 60 days in the “positive youth development” SBCC provides, the youths avoid probation and have their cases  closed and their records cleared.

Positive youth development has created quite a bit of buzz in juvenile justice circles. For kids in SBCC, it means a chance at a new life, and the program’s leaders say it’s all about building on youths’ strengths and their ties to the community and family, rather than a “deficit-based” approach focusing more on “at-risk youth,” “dysfunctional families” and such.

An independent evaluation by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City has found that SBCC helped keep youths from returning to crime and being arrested again. The John Jay evaluation followed 62 youths referred to SBCC from 2011 to 2013 by probation officers or prosecutors.

Rev. Ruben Austria, who founded Community Connections for Youth in 2009, said:

Incarcerating youth has been a dismal failure. Every dollar invested in putting youth through the juvenile justice system takes resources out of our communities.

“We are challenging juvenile justice systems to reinvest their resources in neighborhoods most impacted by incarceration to increase their level of partnerships with and financial support to neighborhood and grassroots organizations.

The evaluation found that juveniles who were meaningfully engaged in civic activities with ‘coaches,’ ‘mentors’ and peers for at least 60 days were significantly more likely to remain uninvolved in the justice system during the following year than was a [Bronx-wide] comparison group.

Austria said he had made a pledge to skeptical juvenile justice authorities:

You just use this diversion option, which is a 60-day, short-term window, and if they [juveniles] do what they have to do, then you seal and close the case and there’s no more supervision. Our promise is we will keep on engaging these youngsters … throughout the rest of their adolescence.’

What’s the secret? Austria explained that involving grassroots faith and neighborhood organizations in the community played a big role. By keeping it hyper-local, adult coaches and mentors and youths’ peers got to know – and work closely with – juveniles involved in SBCC.

The program also stresses parental involvement, offering formal training in parenting, and some parents also serve as peer mentors to other parents. Parental involvement paid off: Kids whose parents were involved in the program stayed involved in SBBC for an average of 165 days, while those whose parents participated in up to four program activities stayed involved for an average of 205 days.

Community Connections for Youth received a $1.1 million grant for the pilot program from a federal Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention formula grant through the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services. That money has run out, but SBCC is continuing to operate with funding from private foundations. Officials in other jurisdictions have expressed interest in starting similar programs.

Author’s note: Many years ago I lived and taught in the South Bronx. It was a very impoverished, crime-ridden, dangerous neighborhood, so positive steps like this are highly encouraging.

South Bronx –see article above

California, Ordered to Release 4000 Imprisoned Women to Communities, Thwarts 89.5% of Them Over 3 Years

Photo by Susan Madden Lankford

In 2011, under mounting pressure to decrease the prison population, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) created the Alternative Custody Program (ACP) designed to forge a path for low-level female inmates to return home (under electronic surveillance), care for their children and reintegrate into their communities.

Cynthia sought ACP admission after getting her paperwork straightened out and applying three times, but she was was denied. The explanation? She was told she needed a teeth-cleaning before her application could be processed. Another woman was denied because of a computer error: Her dentistry was up to date, but a bureaucrat hadn’t changed her status, so she remained behind bars. Michelle, who has four children at home, was denied ACP because of a mistake in classification—her crime was embezzlement, but it was mistakenly classified as “violent,” rendering her ineligible.

In the offices of California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP), letters have piled high from women who want to return home to their families and repent for their crimes. But very few of the eligible inmates are given a real chance to take advantage of the opportunities that ACP promised.

In one of the letters, an inmate named Anna, in prison for identity fraud, wrote:

I know I’ve made mistakes in my life, but I’m ready for a change. Yes, I’ve been in and out of prison, but don’t only look at my record; look at what I did and all my programs.

She has not been released.

Misty Rojo, the program coordinator at CCWP, has received reports from women who were denied release because they had a pit bull as a pet and because they received medication for a treatable medical condition like high blood pressure.

Before the women are released under ACP, they’re subject to a pre-release interview that includes sensitive questions about their histories of abuse and other mental anguish. The Justice Depaartment has determined that at least half of all female inmates have been victims of physical or sexual abuse and one-third have been raped prior to incarceration, and that appearing to harbor lingering psychological trauma from this abuse can prevent release. Even worse, the people asking these questions aren’t licensed therapists.They intentionally ask questions that cause the women to break down into tears and then accuse the women of being “mentally unstable,” meaning they are not eligible for release.

That’s what an inmate named Theresa claimed happened to her in a letter she wrote to CCWP explaining that she “was not prepared for what took place in my ACP classification hearing.” Theresa met all of the criteria for ACP and had no disciplinary actions. She participated in programs like Alcoholics Anonymous and anger management. But in her hearing she was asked about her suicide attempts as a minor as well as her childhood and adult molestation and rape. She felt blindsided by the process and dejected at the result, which was a denial of her ACP application.

These stories help to illustrate why out of the estimated 4,000 women eligible for ACP, only 420 have been released in the three years the program has been active. California’s prisons are overflowing—so why is the state trying to keep its women inmates behind bars?

Women are the fastest-growing segment of America’s prison population, and more than half of them—at least in California—are non-violent offenders. Women, along with gender-nonconforming inmates, are also some of the most vulnerable inside prison; rates of inmate-on-inmate sexual violence are greater  among women than men. It is estimated that 75% of incarcerated women are the primary caretakers of their children, meaning that their imprisonment leaves a trail of disaster for their families.

In the rancorous policy debates over California’s deplorable prison system, women’s prisons have frequently fallen by the wayside. Their overcrowding  leads to a range of obvious problems , from overuse of solitary confinement and more frequent lockdowns (since there are too many inmates for the staff to control) to a lack of basic supplies and unsanitary conditions. But perhaps the most severe indirect consequence of overcrowding is poor medical care for the inmates. In December 2013, a court-appointed panel of medical experts issued an independent report condemning the conditions at CCWF, citing a litany of institutional deficiencies.

More shockingly, an investigation last summer by the Center for Investigative Reporting discovered that nearly 150 female inmates were given unauthorized sterilizations between 2006 and 2010 at three California women’s prisons. A new bill just signed by Governor Brown supposedly outlaws the practice at last.

Two of the prisons have been the target of scrutiny for poor medical care for almost 20 years, but instead of releasing female prisoners who are unlikely to pose harm—thus, potentially alleviating some of these issues—Governor Jerry Brown recently signed a $9 million/year contract with GEO Group, the second-largest private prison contracting company, to take over a prison facility in McFarland, California that will house about 260 women (with an option to double its size). Prison p.r. claims that the facility will boast services like job training, drug programs and other therapeutic interventions, although there is no guarantee that transferred inmates will be able to continue any of their current programming.

But the move is not an auspicious one. While the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation doesn’t have the best track record, it looks like a luxury hotel compared to GEO Group, which is the subject of hundreds of lawsuits for violence, mistreatment and poor medical care in its facilities.

In 2010, the ACLU filed a lawsuit on behalf of an epileptic Texas man who died from an untreated seizure while in solitary confinement. GEO Group was criticized for the abysmal conditions in a Mississippi juvenile facility by a federal judge, who held that the private company allowed “a cesspool of unconstitutional and inhuman acts and conditions to germinate.”

On top of concerns about privatized prisons, the latest outcry over the proposed McFarland facility crystallizes the ongoing problem of California’s women’s prisons: facilities plagued by scandals and problems that remain largely out of the public view.

While the GEO contract might temporarily alleviate overcrowding, it doesn’t solve the real problem, which would be to allow the release of non-violent offenders and maintain the programs that help these women reintegrate into their communities. (ACP provides no assistance for women seeking employment or housing.)

The popularity of Orange Is the New Black has drawn attention to the plight of women in prison. Still, it is difficult for these women to speak up about their treatment, because they have felt so consistently ignored by prison authorities, who operate in a system dominated by hyper-masculine principles. The CDCR, like all prison regimes, lacks accountability, because its decisions are always shrouded under the guise of “public safety”– something no politician seems bold enough to question.

Women inmates are less likely to riot or institute hunger strikes, which emboldens the CDCR to ignore them, because they are less in the public eye.  These women suffer from what is called a “double invisibility,” hidden from the public’s eyes because no one will take the time to listen.

A Growing Movement Is Fighting the Criminalization of Homelessness

Photo by Susan Madden Lankford

Photo by Susan Madden Lankford

Homeless people and their advocates across the United States are pushing back against cities’ attempts to erase the problem of homelessness by criminalizing it and demanding that their basic rights be recognized and protected.

As the national momentum grows around individual states’ proposals for a “Homeless Bill of Rights,” dozens of social justice and homeless advocacy groups in three states have united in the effort, surveying homeless people about their priorities and working to draft legislation to put before lawmakers early next year.

Ray Lyall, a member of Denver Homeless Out Loud, one of the groups behind the initiative, said:

Instead of trying to solve homelessness, cities around the country have criminalized it. We want basic human rights; we want to be able to sleep and we want to be able to sit down. Homeless people are almost always told to get up, to move along; we can’t sleep, we can’t sit. There’s a lot of the general public who come out and hand food out, and they’re trying to stop that. We did a report on the availability of bathrooms here in Denver, and there’s absolutely none  open 24 hours.

Lyall has been doing outreach with Denver’s 11,000 homeless residents to build support for the initiative and says he is very optimistic a homeless bill of rights will eventually pass in Colorado. The coalition of groups pushing for the bill has identified a series of priorities they want legislation to address — from access to toilets to the right to eat and share food in public to the right to sleep in parked cars and in public parks without discrimination.

Many cities’ prohibitions against these activities unfairly target the homeless. Michael Stoops, director of community organizing at the DC-based National Coalition for the Homeless, said:

If you talk to homeless folks, the criminalization of homelessness is a big issue because they are being cited, harassed and arrested for things that they have no control over. They have to sleep in the park; they have to sit on the sidewalk.

Where restrictive laws are in place, the homeless are disproportionately singled out for enforcement, advocates state.

While the proposed bill of rights focuses on “essential” activities like sleeping, eating and sitting, the advocates are also pushing for more substantial, long-term solutions.

Lyall who has been without a home, for a second time, for a year and a half, explained:

We want real affordable housing. What they call affordable housing here is for someone who’s either a nurse or works for the fire department or something like that. There is no real affordable housing; a person making $10 an hour can’t afford a home in this town.

The current effort — in Colorado, Oregon, and California — is only the latest towards the recognition of the rights of the homeless. Three states have already passed similar bills, and others are working to end legalized discrimination against the homeless.

There’s a movement around the country for a homeless bill of rights. Instead of trying to solve homelessness, cities around the country have criminalized it, and so in response to that, many are fighting against proposed anti-homeless laws throughout the country, and the most recent positive outcome has been some states adopting full-fledged homeless bills of rights.

Following the example of Puerto Rico, which passed its own bill in 2007, Rhode Island, in 2012, was the first state to adopt one. A year later, Illinois and Connecticut followed.

Those bills are important victories, but they don’t directly tackle the criminalization of homelessness, critics say. The end result with the Rhode Island bill is that the rich as well as the poor are forbidden from certain behaviors.

Last year, California pushed for a bolder bill, but it was rejected. However as cities and municipalities have cracked down on the homeless by banning their most basic behaviors, support for a broader recognition of their rights has grown.

Stoops said:

California’s homeless bill of rights that got defeated — and advocates are working on having it reintroduced — had a strong component against the criminalization of homelessness. The Rhode Island bill may not be as strong as the proposed California bill, but it was the first in the nation, and we are quite happy that it got passed. There’s always a more idealistic version of any bill, but you always have to look at what’s possible.

In the capital, National Coalition for the Homeless is working to end discrimination against those without a home by adding “homelessness” as a protected class under the district’s 1977 human rights act. If the push is successful, the district will be the first to make it unlawful to discriminate against homeless individuals in housing, employment, public accommodation and educational institutions.

Stoops said:

Here in Washington DC, our initial goal is to get homelessness added to DC’s civil rights law. The criminalization of homelessness is an issue, but so is discrimination. Right now, it’s legal to discriminate against the homeless population, meaning that landlords and employers can refuse to rent to or hire people simply because they are homeless. We want to stop that.

Critics Point to Serious Problems in Louisiana’s “Reformed” Juvenile Justice System

Photo from Juvenile Justice Information Exchange

Photo from Juvenile Justice Information Exchange

Reports of guards molesting children, gladiator-style fighting and a lack of basic education for kids as young as 14 once gave Louisiana’s juvenile justice system the reputation of one of the worst in the country. So in 2003, the Louisiana Legislature passed sweeping reforms. Over time, those efforts helped whittle down the number of kids locked in sprawling, prison-like facilities, from more than 2,000 to about 350 today.

Rather than locking up juveniles, Louisiana now relies more on community-based services such as family therapy to deal with behavioral disorders and drug addiction. New rules in youth facilities forbid restraining chairs, mace and excessive time in solitary confinement. On paper, Louisiana is called a “model” state by reform agencies, almost achieving what criminologist Barry Krisberg calls the “American juvenile justice ideal.”

But people close to the system say Louisiana’s reform efforts haven’t gone nearly far enough to be considered a model for anything. Frustrated family members, defense lawyers and criminal justice reform advocates sharply criticize the way the state treats its youngest convicts. Many say the state’s juvenile justice system is regressing to what made it infamous more than a decade ago.

Grace Bauer, executive director of Justice For Families, a national organization that opposes youth incarceration, says:

Louisiana should be ashamed. The system is not the answer, if kids are getting locked up in one of these cages. It’s so backwards. We’re moving backwards.

Critics say that one of the most telling indicators of this is the state’s lack of investment in facilities that don’t lock up kids, such as group homes and medical treatment facilities. Meanwhile, state officials have decided to build three more prison-like facilities, and construction on one began in August.

Although more juvenile offenders are now in alternative facilities, conditions there sometimes border on inhumane, according to state inspectors. They charge that children are forced to go without prescribed medication, are punished with long stretches in solitary confinement and have been maced by staff.

According to reports by the Louisiana Legislative Auditor, the Louisiana Office of Juvenile Justice, created to oversee the system, provides inadequate monitoring of prison alternatives such as group homes, .

Bauer adds:

We were once ahead of the rest of the country on this stuff, but now it’s almost like the administration is not bothering to read the science that’s out there.

In the 1990s, following a “tough on crime” approach to juvenile justice, Louisiana had the highest youth incarceration rate in the country . And youthful offenders were likely to break the law again. Judges handed out inconsistent sentences, and many juveniles ended up in adult courts.

During a series of public hearings, youth advocates, legislators, judges district attorneys and citizens began to identify problems in the system. In 1995, the advocacy group Human Rights Watch determined that all four of Louisiana’s youth prisons violated international human rights standards.  Tallulah Correctional Center for Youth in the northeast corner of the state stood out, because of its cramped dormitories, windowless isolation cells and pervasive corporal punishment. Children said they never had enough to eat and were often maced by guards.

A 1996 U.S. Department of Justice investigation found that over 20 days 28 children at Tallulah were hospitalized for serious injuries, and some kids clearly suffered sexual abuse. In 1998, the newly formed Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana sued on behalf of youth in Tallulah. When the Justice Department joined the suit,  it kickstarted reform of the juvenile justice system.

Things didn’t get better right away. Six years after the Human Rights Watch report, Bauer’s son Corey was sent to Tallulah on a theft conviction. At that time, fractured jaws, broken noses and punctured eardrums were everyday occurences there. Bauer claims that her 14-year-old son was raped, abused and neglected, suffering heart problems, severe depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

In 2003, the Louisiana Legislature passed Act 1225, which laid the foundation for therapeutic approaches. The state closed Tallulah and increased supervision of parolees. And the state Office of Juvenile Justice became separate from the state Department of Public Safety and Corrections.

Louisiana changed its policies to emphasize community involvement, facilities that are more like homes and follow-up care after incarceration. The new rules targeted kids who hadn’t committed serious crimes, offering them intensive therapy, treatment for drug abuse and mentorships. In the 11 years since, more and more young offenders have gone to alternative facilities rather than adult-like prisons.

Beauregard Parish District Attorney David Burton says:

We have the right idea, but we’re in a transition state and still have a ways to go. We’re doing the best we can with the cards we’ve been dealt.

Louisiana now operates three youth prisons for teenage boys around the state: Monroe, Columbia and Bridge City, near New Orleans. A private company runs a facility for girls in Coushatta in the northwestern part of the state. These places are not nearly as crammed as they used to be. The rate of youth imprisonment in Louisiana dropped by more than half from 2001 to 2010 — one of the biggest drops in the country.

That’s important because kids are more likely to thrive in community-based programs and group homes than in prisons, according to groups such as the Justice Policy Institute.

The Louisiana Office of Juvenile Justice contracts with seven non-profit firms to run juvenile group residences and inpatient treatment facilities, and others are available through the state’s Department of Health and Hospitals. However, those seven facilities have been flagged for serious problems. According to numerous investigations by the Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services:

  • Children in private facilities are sometimes forced to go without medical care and haven’t been given prescription drugs that they need.
  • Youth at some facilities have been restrained or held in solitary confinement for more than 24 hours.
  • Children say they’ve been abused or maced by staff.
  • Employees have been hired without undergoing criminal background checks.

Joshua Perry, the executive director of the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights, said his staff found dire conditions in the residential children’s home Christian Acres Youth Center, based in Tallulah. When two of his team’s lawyers visited in May, Perry said:

 There were dorms surrounded by barbed wire. Children were sleeping in 12-room dorms on old hospital beds. And there were no vocational programs or services for children with special needs. It’s really astonishing how little accountability there is for adults who hold kids’ futures in their hands. Adolescents are really sensitive to hypocrisy. Don’t think they miss it for a second if they aren’t being treated fairly.

Perry believes there are too few of these facilities in the state, which means parents, lawyers and state officials have to travel hundreds of miles to check on kids, and this contributes to poor oversight.

The Louisiana Legislative Auditor has criticized the way these homes and treatment programs are overseen. The state’s juvenile justice agency can send youth to 44 residential facilities that aren’t prisons, but the Office of Juvenile Justice doesn’t directly run any of them. They aren’t all managed by the same organization, either — a system that, according to critics, invites problems.

Legislative auditors found that the Office of Juvenile Justice had reduced the number of contracts with residential facilities from 20 in 2009 to 12 in 2013. Devastating budget cuts meant that school-based counseling and other community programs, which allowed kids to go home at night, were slashed by 57% from 2012 to now. Yet officials have announced plans to increase the number of prison-like facilities from three to five in coming years.

 

Coalition of 50 Cumberland Co., NJ Groups Seeks to Intervene in Schools and Reduce Youth Imprisonment

Photo from Wikipedia

Photo from Wikipedia

Today, the Cumberland County Positive Youth Development Coalition, comprised of nearly 100 members representing more than 50 law enforcement agencies, municipal and county governments, school districts, chaplains and youth-serving organizations seeks to intervene in schools before troubled youth are forced into the juvenile justice system.

Since 2009, when the Senator Walter Rand Institute for Public Affairs at Rutgers University–Camden was tasked by New Jersey’s Office of the Attorney General to identify potential policies, practices and programs which could prevent or reduce juvenile delinquency, the city of Vineland saw a 76 percent decrease in juvenile arrests before expanding the coalition in 2013 to include Cumberland County cities Bridgeton and Millville.

Tracy Swan, senior project coordinator for the coalition, explains:

We want to prevent the juveniles of today from becoming the young adults of tomorrow who are committing violent, heinous crimes.

For the past two years, the coalition has been supported by $120,000 in grants from the Cumberland County Board of Chosen Freeholders. In November 2013, the Rand Institute conducted a data walk, collecting demographic and crime data, such as age, gender, locations where crimes were committed and where perpetrators lived, from the three municipal police departments. They subsequently created a landscape of Cumberland County to show the coalition the five primary locations for juvenile crime.

Vineland High School North and South campuses were the two prime hotspots, but, the statistics don’t necessarily mean that more crimes are being committed there–only that more juvenile arrests are occurring there.

Swan adds:

This tells us that the school is relying on law enforcement first versus any internal policies that they might employ to de-escalate situations and achieve conflict resolution.

Rand Institute recommended that law enforcement be called as the last resort, and not the first. Swan believes that when officers are called to resolve a physical conflict, it also increases the possibility that, in addition to disorderly conduct, juveniles could be charged with assault on a police officer and assault on school personnel as a result of breaking up the fight. As a result, even if juveniles didn’t have any prior criminal history, they would have to contend with the ramifications of new charges on their record. “In most cases, these incidents could probably have been handled by security guards, guidance counselorsor teachers,” says Swan.

The data walk also revealed that many juvenile arrests occurred in the morning, prior to the start of school. Based on these findings, the Rand Institute suggested that since police officers already visit the schools on a daily basis, visits should be made in the morning to create a visible deterrent. Even if kids are just sitting in a car, having that visible police presence makes a huge difference, Swan feels.

The coalition principally aims to reduce the number of arrests by increasing the number of stationhouse adjustments performed by chaplains. Through an agreement with the three police departments, youth who are arrested for a first-time, non-felony offense meet with a chaplain, who provides counseling and assigns them four hours of community service.

Over the past year, Vineland chaplains have been assigned to middle and high schools, where they speak with juveniles and, when necessary, perform stationhouse adjustments. The chaplains also visit the schools periodically to establish a rapport with the students and work closely with guidance counselors, school psychologists and administrators to identify at-risk youth before they show delinquent behavior.

Swan points out:

School personnel learn that the chaplains are invaluable tools who can be called on before they call law enforcement. If there are charges that can be stationhouse adjusted, then juveniles can receive community service and get back on the right track, instead of going through the courts.

The coalition demonstrated the success of the practice last summer. In an effort to indoctrinate the newest chaplains, the coalition partnered with the Family Success Centers in Vineland, Bridgeton and Millville, a network of community-based gathering places that offer family support services, to organize a countywide curfew sweep on August 1. Twenty-six youth were escorted to these centers, where they met with a chaplain who advised them of curfew restrictions, the spike in crime statistics after dark and the range of available social services and resources. Overall, the sweep was a success, since no juveniles were arrested and all were released to a guardian.

Swan reports:

This was a non-punitive educational event where we were more interested in sending a message to the kids that they could pass on to their peers. The sweep did uncover a .45 caliber gun and two knives.

The coalition now hopes to duplicate that success by involving school districts and their respective personnel in a much more systematic way.

Swan concludes:

That’s really our focus this fall, so that by the end of the spring, we have a fully integrated relationship with the schools. All school districts in the county are invited to participate. For the coalition to be effective, we need that synergy to exist between the schools, law enforcement and social services.