Archive for Humane Exposures

As London’s Holloway Prison Closes, UK Reformers Realize Women’s Prisons Do More Harm Than Good

Since 1852, Holloway prison in North London held the poor and destitute in bleak conditions. In the early 20th century, it was re-designated a women’s prison and had a special place in the history of struggles for women’s equality as the place where suffragettes were famously imprisoned and brutally force-fed. It was completely rebuilt on the same site between 1971 and 1985, and in the light of women’s perceived health and social needs, it was re-designed as a hybrid between a hospital and a prison.

Yet Holloway has not been not full of happy,

healthy women. Half of those there have suffered domestic violence, and one in three has experienced sexual abuse. Three in ten have been in local authority care. Half of women in prison suffer from anxiety and depression and a quarter report symptoms indicative of psychosis—compared with 4 per cent of the general population.

Nearly half of women who are imprisoned will already have attempted suicide. Women, who make up only 5 per cent of the prison population, account for a quarter of the incidents of self harm in custody.

Sufragette in Holloway Prison

Sufragette sent to Holloway Prison

Holloway is soon to close, but selling it off as prime real estate is the clearest message to the courts that prison is not the place to dump vulnerable women who have committed petty, non-violent offences and who have so often been victims of serious crime themselves. Women’s prisons have become stopgap, cut-price providers of drug detox, social care, mental health assessment and treatment – a refuge for those failed by public services.

Juliet Lyons, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said:

We are still locking up our most damaged and vulnerable women in bleak, under-resourced institutions, from which, despite the best efforts of staff, they are almost bound to emerge more damaged, more vulnerable.

When women do go to prison, it has a huge impact on family life because most are primary carers. As to their children, though only a minority are taken into local authority care, most are farmed out to relatives and friends. Imprisonment will cause a third of women prisoners to lose their homes, reducing their future chances of employment and shattering families.

Alternatives to incarceration do exist, but need to be developed. Across the UK, women’s centers, police triage schemes and liaison and diversion health services respond effectively to women offenders in the community. Unlike prisons, which diminish responsibility and increase dependence, these succeed in enabling vulnerable women to take responsibility for their lives. London, where there is the highest disproportionate use of custody in the country, is particularly short of these community sentences that command the confidence of the courts.

What is certain is that simply decanting women from a not-fit-for-purpose Holloway up the road to leafier Surrey will not do enough to reduce the needless use of imprisonment for women.

Lyons asked:

Do we really need women’s prisons on this scale at all? Small custodial units could be developed for the few women who have committed serious and violent offences and the sum raised from the sale of the prison could be invested in community sentences and women’s centers – not just funneled down the prison building drain.

This would give women who have offended their first real opportunity to beat drugs, drink, mental illness and crime, and take responsibility for their lives, and those of their children. Most will take it.

New York City Will Spend $3 Billion Creating 15,000 Supported Housing Units for its Homeless

New York City, in what will mark the single biggest investment of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration to fight homelessness, plans to create 15,000 additional units of housing that will be paired with social-service support, an initiative estimated to cost about $3 billion. The move comes as months of talks between Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the city on a joint program have failed to come to fruition. 

Photo by Susan Madden Langford

Photo by Susan Madden Langford

The city’s homelessness problem has developed as one of the biggest political and policy challenges for Mr. de Blasio, well predating his election two years ago, yet nevertheless worsening on his watch. About 58,000 people now are in the city’s shelter system, and residents have complained about the rising numbers of people living on the streets.

Supportive housing isn’t a new way to address homelessness for New York City, though City Hall’s planned new investment takes the approach to a new level. Under such programs, people pay a portion of their income or monthly support from the city or state as rent—about 30%—and they are provided with services such as substance-abuse counseling and some medical care, plus the housing.

The city plans to support the construction of 7,500 new supportive-housing apartments over the coming years, giving nonprofit groups and developers subsidies and tax credits to do so. Another 7,500 units will come online as the city converts existing apartments to the supportive-housing network.

Development will cost about $2.6 billion, including $1 billion in city subsidies to developers. The city will spend hundreds of millions more to provide social and health services for the residents.

Steven Banks, head of the Human Resources Administration, said:

In the past, supportive housing has enabled the shelter population to stabilize and even be reduced. We see this as a way to provide stability to help people get off the streets, help get people out of the shelters and find a permanent solution for housing.

Similar programs over the past two decades have produced about 15,000 units, according to the city, and they have been funded by the city and state. In 2005, a program called NY/N3 brought online 9,000 units over 10 years and was largely paid for by the state. Programs in 1990 and 1998 also were split between the city and the state. Mr. Banks declined to say why the state wasn’t working with the city on the latest venture but said he hoped for cooperation in the future.

A Cuomo spokeswoman remarked, “As the governor has said many times, the state stands ready to help the city address the homelessness crisis.”

Advocates say Albany’s decision to cut the Advantage rent-subsidy program in 2011 caused more homelessness in New York City.

The new supportive-housing initiative isn’t likely to make an immediate dent in the city’s homeless population. New housing units will take at least 18 months to build, and the program will be rolled out over 15 years.

Over the past two years, Mr. de Blasio has been a target of criticism for his handling of the homelessness problem, and polls suggest voters believe the city’s quality of life is eroding. Yet in recent months, Mayor de Blasio’s administration has announced other programs on the homelessness issue—to pay for attorneys to help people avoid eviction and to expand the number shelter beds available.

Advocates say supportive housing is the best option for fixing the problem long-term, because it moves people from shelters or other difficult living situations. Mr. Banks said about 85% of the people who are moved into supportive housing remain housed.

Advocates at the Corporation for Supportive Housing, a nonprofit involved in the issue, have estimated that New York needs more than 30,000 new units of supportive housing and they have pushed for Mr. Cuomo to commit state funding.

Mary Brosnahan, president and chief executive of the Coalition for the Homeless, said:

It would be impossible to overstate the significance of the mayor funding 15,000 units of supportive housing. This is the only thing that will make an impact.

City officials hope forging ahead will pressure Governor Cuomo to also put money toward supportive housing. So far, 133 members of the State Assembly have signed a letter to Mr. Cuomo, urging more state support for such projects.


Seattle’s King County’s Plan to Reform Juvenile Justice While Removing Racism From It

King County, WA (including Seattle) is one of

Photo by Susan Madden Lankford

Photo by Susan Madden Lankford

many areas which has a distinctive “school-to-prison pipeline,” with policies that propel youth of color from the halls of education to the cells of incarceration. Dilapidated conditions at the King County Family Justice Center eventually caught the attention of county officials, who determined the detention center building was beyond repair. In 2012 voters in King County approved a 9-year property tax increase to pay for the construction of a new facility expected to cost more than $210 million.

When “open house” meetings were held around the county a month after the vote, organizers mobilized intense opposition. They gathered a coalition of self-described youth-prison abolitionists, anti-racist organizers and clergy to fight the proposed “new youth jail.” Their efforts grew into three years of carefully orchestrated teach-ins on the harms of juvenile detention, fiery public forums, strategic protests and—later—meetings with county officials.

Much more than money was at stake. The movement’s most vocal participants were from Seattle’s communities of color, who anticipated it would be their children who would end up inside its walls. And with good reason: Black youth in King County currently make up 50.7 percent of incarcerated youth, despite being less than 12 percent of the youth population at large. All people of color combined make up fully three-quarters of the average daily juvenile population in King County.

Those numbers are worse than national averages, which show African Americans making up about 40 percent of the incarcerated youth population and about 13 percent of the population at large. This is what activists and scholars term “disproportionality”—the over-representation of youth of color within the justice system.

The No New Youth Jail Movement ultimately pressured the county to own up to its failure to create racial equity—and to change its policies in an effort to address the problem. Specifically, officials committed to do something seldom achieved by a major U.S. county: to not only decrease the total number of incarcerated youth, but to reduce the racial inequities of the system at the same time.

The end game of the movement was not only to halt the construction of a new detention center. Organizers also wanted to put a stop to racial disproportionality. At the beginning, they barely registered on local officials’ radar.

Pamela Jones, the director of the King County Youth Services Center, said:

I felt that we did our due diligence and received community input but there was obviously a vocal group who didn’t believe that to be the case.

The county’s proposal to replace the existing Youth Services Center with a new facility called the Children and Family Justice Center, which like its predecessor includes detention facilities, was approved in 2012, with groundbreaking scheduled for the spring of 2016. While outcry ensued during the proposal period, opposition heated up after the approval when several local anti-racist groups began to form the coalition that eventually became known as the No New Youth Jail Movement. Three groups funded by the Quaker affiliated American Friends Service Committee came to play pivotal roles: EPIC (Ending the Prison Industrial Complex); YUIR (Youth Undoing Institutional Racism) and European Dissent.

Over the past 18 months, organizing hundreds of people to flood the offices of elected officials with phone calls and letters and to gather at city and county meetings to speak out against the detention center. One such meeting saw them orchestrate a “people’s filibuster” which saw organizers flood the city council chambers to take turns reciting passages from civil right’s legend Angela Davis’ book Are Prison’s Obsolete?, extending the meeting by several hours in an attempt to delay the approval of the construction contract with developer Howard S Wright.

Wright’s office became the site of a biblical re-enactment staged by Jenn Hagedorn and Claire West of European Dissent. The two led about 100 mostly white protesters to its main lobby, placed thousands of coins upon a large coffee table while startled staff looked on, and flipped it over in an ode to the Biblical description of Jesus Christ’s actions against the money lenders in the temple. West said the demonstration served to draw attention to one of the movement’s key messages, that money is being made on the backs of black children.

By March 2015 county officials announced they would no longer refer juveniles to criminal courts for “status offenses”—juvenile-specific crimes including truancy, running away from home or being late to class. Officials moved to “decriminalize” mental illness in youth, by referring them to programs instead of juvenile detention. They also announced that they would reduce the number of beds planned for the Family Justice Center’s detention facility, from 144 beds to 112. The current Youth Services Center holds 212 beds.

More recently, in October, the City of Seattle passed a resolution, written primarily by members of EPIC, announcing the city’s goal of completely ending juvenile incarceration within its borders.

King County’s experience with racial disparities in juvenile incarceration is not unique. Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI) works with more than 250 counties nationwide, including King County, to decrease juvenile prison populations. The initiative was founded in 1992 as a response to what was then an astronomical growth in the United States’ juvenile prison population. Since that time, 83 percent of participating counties that have implemented JDAI’s practices have reduced their juvenile detention populations. On average, those counties cut their daily detained-youth populations by 43 percent. That means that, on average, 3,173 fewer youth are incarcerated in the United States each day.

But the system still incarcerates youth of color at higher rates than white youth. In 2013, the most recent year for which national data was available, 68 percent of all confined youth belonged to an ethnic minority, despite the fact that they comprise about 48 percent of the total youth population in the United States.

King County provides a clear example of what the problem looks like up close. Since 1998, when it joined JDAI’s program, it has decreased its overall population of incarcerated youth by 70 percent. Its juvenile population fell from a daily average of 205 in 1998 to roughly 55 today.

The most significant policy change that led to the decrease, according to county officials, was a change in detention intake policies: Police officers are now required to call the detention center to determine whether confinement is necessary before bringing a young person there. Previously, police officers would drop off juveniles at King County detention center as they saw fit.

Today, King County has the second-lowest juvenile prison population of counties of equivalent size, according to JDAI. But the percentage of the incarcerated who are black has risen from 35 percent to nearly 60 percent during that time.

The county believes prosecuting minors for status offenses has contributed to disproportionality because so many of those charged with them are youth of color. Officials also recently passed legislation that stops charging juveniles for failure to pay the fare on county-operated public transportation.

Both King County and the City of Seattle have signed onto a Statement of Shared Commitment to reduce disparities in juvenile justice and are working with local school districts within the county, including Seattle Public Schools, to implement restorative justice practices in place of expulsions and suspensions.

Importantly, the county will also begin providing training to security officials stationed on buses in the County on how to deal with adolescents, specifically those of color. Dave Upthegrove, the King County council member who spearheaded that legislation, would love the training to extend to every school, police station and prosecuting attorney’s office.

King County’s Chief Juvenile Judge, Wesley Saint Clair says:

Until we have the courage to start dealing with issues of institutional racism, structural racism and implicit bias, we will be dealing with racial problems over the next 150 years. We must look to our partners in education, law enforcement and child welfare, plus behavioral and medical health providers, to participate in the conversation about implicit bias and undoing institutional racism.



Incarceration of Women for Drug Crimes in the Americas is Soaring

The first study carried out by the Research

Maggots in my Sweet Potatoes

Photo by Susan Madden Lankford

Consortium on Drugs and the Law (CEDD) demonstrated the impact of drug policies on the increase in Latin America in the incarceration of women, who are generally imprisoned for the nonviolent offenses of small-scale dealing or transporting drugs. Although the total number of women in prison is still far below the male population, the overall percentage of incarcerated women increased considerably in nearly all of the countries under study, with the exception of Bolivia.

[It is not yet possible to pinpoint the reasons why there has been a decline in the female incarceration rate in Bolivia. In recent years, there have been significant increases in the minimum wage, while at the same time benefits were expanded for pregnant women and mothers, and the economy improved overall. The four pardon initiatives to date have benefited many women, especially since they tend to be for lesser crimes.]

In the period 2001-2015, the incarceration rate of women in Mexico (per 100,000 of population) has more than tripled, from 7.1% to 21.6%. In Brazil, from 2000 to 2013, it has it has also increased more than three-fold, from 5.8% to 17.5%. And over similar time periods it has more than doubled in Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela.

These women share a similar socio-demographic profile: They are young, poor, single mothers and heads of household, with responsibility of caring for their children and other family members. They often have low levels of education, and frequently they belong to ethnic minorities (including Afro descendant and indigenous).

In Brazil, for example, about 55% of incarcerated women are of African descent, and in Mexico, a significant number of indigenous women are in prison for drug-related offenses. This underscores the fact that drug law implementation is always selective; generally it is those who are the poorest and weakest who are punished, and women in situations of social exclusion and/or vulnerability are disproportionately affected.

The percentage of women incarcerated for drug-related crimes in recent years is stunning: 75% in Costa Rica, 65% in Argentina, 61% in Brazil and Peru, 48% in Bolivia, 45% in Mexico and Colombia and 43% in Ecuador.

The consequences of the use of prisons can be seen not only in terms of how these women’s lives are affected but also in the impact on their families, children and dependents, who are left unprotected socially and economically. In Colombia, of all the women held in prison for drug offenses between 2010 and 2014, 93% had children. A study by the Costa Rican Public Defender’s Office shows that of the 120 women convicted for bringing drugs into prisons (15% of the total), 50% were responsible for three or more children.

This means that the incarceration of women for drug offenses has a bigger impact on the destruction of family ties and greater implications for children’s best interests, while also affecting the women themselves (beyond their role as mothers).

The studies by CEDD also reveal that a significant number of incarcerated women had never been in prison before and a sizable proportion of them are foreigners. The women who act as “couriers” or transporters are detained with drugs hidden in their baggage or inside their bodies. Many of them have been deceived, threatened or intimidated into transporting drugs. In Argentina, nine of every 10 foreign-born women incarcerated for drug crimes in federal prisons were detained for acting as “couriers”; of that group, 96% are first-time offenders and nearly all of them are on the lowest rungs of the drug trafficking ladder.

This means that their detention does not have any impact on the drug trade, which is booming in the region. The traffickers’ recruitment of women suffering from extreme poverty criminalizes those who are most vulnerable and who are attracted to the drug trafficking business because of their situation of socioeconomic vulnerability.

In the majority of countries in the region —with the exception of Ecuador and Costa Rica, which recently reformed their drug laws— legislation does not distinguish between the different degrees of participation and involvement of women in the offense, and as a result they face very long prison sentences. Recognizing this gender issue, Costa Rica passed a law to shorten sentences for women who bring drugs into prisons, recognizing that many of them live in conditions of vulnerability that are largely associated with gender.

Another example is Bolivia, which very recently issued a Supreme Decree that allows pardons for women who are more than 24 weeks pregnant. Studies show that the growth in the number of women detained for drug-related offenses in the region, which is even greater than that of men, goes hand-in-hand with the progressive toughening of drug laws.

Luciana Boiteux, who recently reported the CEDD findings, said:

The increase in the female prison population for these crimes reflects a global trend, and the damage is felt especially keenly in Latin American countries due to the region’s complex sociopolitical conditions. This harm is seen mainly among women who enter into the process of feminization of poverty and are affected by the gender inequalities prevalent in Latin America. For this reason, the feminist criminologist Chesney-Lind states that ‘the war on drugs is a war on women.’

Here are CEDD’s recommendations: a) Expand access to prison data on gender, which can serve as the basis for designing effective public policies. b) Significantly reduce the levels of incarceration of women by applying the principle of proportionality in sentencing and adopting alternatives to incarceration, both in the case of pretrial detention and the serving of sentences. c) Reform drug laws to distinguish between small, medium and large-scale drug offenses, between degrees of leadership in criminal networks, between violent and nonviolent crimes, as well as according to the type of drugs involved.

d) Ensure that judges have the flexibility to take into account factors of vulnerability and whether the accused woman has dependents. e) Pregnant women and mothers of minors who are convicted of drug offenses should not be incarcerated; alternatives to incarceration should be contemplated for them. f) If mothers of minors are incarcerated, mechanisms must be created to safeguard their children and the protection of the children’s best interests must take precedence over any other consideration. g) Promote processes for social integration —including educational programs, technical training or jobs— as alternatives to incarceration, and both within prisons and outside them for women who are granted parole or early release, or have finished serving their sentence. h) Guarantee and expand women’s participation in the debate on drug policy, especially those women who have been the most affected, such as users of illicit drugs, incarcerated women, and the mothers, wives or partners of incarcerated men.

Ontario Sets 10-year Deadline to End Four Classes of Homelessness

Ontario is giving itself 10 years to end chronic homelessness, as recommended by an expert advisory panel. The panel, appointed in January as part of Ontario’s second five-year poverty reduction strategy, was established to define homelessness and determine how to measure it, set a target to end it and help implement “best practices” across the province.

The government is also adopting the panel’s recommendation to focus on four key areas, including youth homelessness, aboriginal homelessness, chronic homelessness and homelessness following transitions from provincial institutions such as jails, hospitals, shelters, group and foster homes.

Humane Exposures: HUD Funds Five Homeless Shelters for Veterans

Photo by Susan Madden Lankford

Deputy Premier Deb Matthews said:

For far too long we have not challenged ourselves, as we should, to solve this problem. We have accepted it. Well, we are no longer going to turn a blind eye.

Today we are taking a very important step forward. We have a plan, We know what we need to know. We are rolling up our sleeves and we are getting to work.

In the short term, the province is earmarking $10 million over two years on initiatives to prevent and end homelessness. The money is part of Ontario’s $50-million local poverty reduction fund.

With the newly elected Liberal government in Ottawa promising to partner with provinces on a national affordable housing strategy, Matthews and Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Ted McMeekin expect funding in this area to increase.

“Isn’t it nice to have a federal partner at last?” McMeekin asked. “Due to the complexity and many faces of homelessness, the problem is best fought at the local level, with the help of non-profit and private-sector partners.”

Looking toward the 10-year goal, municipalities will be expected to have local strategies to end homelessness and a common approach to collecting, measuring and tracking data.

Advisory panel member Pedro Barata, of United Way Toronto, said:

When it comes to complex issues like homelessness, it is very important to have a focus, so we aren’t moving about in a million directions. What’s really encouraging is that we now have three levels of government that are, in general, on the same page in wanting to move forward on this issue.

Affordable housing advocate and advisory panel member Michael Shapcott lauded the province for setting a goal and getting started on a plan to meet it. “But as we all know, nothing significant can happen in housing without more bricks and mortar, and money is absolutely key,” he said.

Under the provincial plan, homelessness is defined as: “the situation of a person or a family without stable, permanent, appropriate housing or the immediate prospect, means and ability of acquiring it.” Chronic homelessness is defined as someone, often with a disabling condition, who has been homeless for six months or more in the past year.

“Familiar Face Fred,” is a a man who was homeless for 15 years in London, Ont. In the year before Fred was housed, he visited the local hospital emergency department more than 250 times, often by ambulance. He had more than 400 encounters with police — more than one a day. In the year after a London-area agency worked with Fred to find him a stable home with supports, he visited the hospital emergency department twice, and Fred had no encounters with police.


Matthews concluded:

Even the most hard-hearted people agree that we are way better to provide housing than to pay for all those unnecessary supports. What Fred’s story illustrates is that we can do this, and all of us — not just Fred — are better off when we do. Fred is living proof that we can end homelessness. Where there is a will, we can achieve this goal.


* 235,000 Canadians experience homelessness every year.

* 35,000 of them are homeless on any given night.

* 6,000 young people use homeless shelters every night across Canada.

* 30,000 youth sleep in shelters every year.

* 2.4% of the general population is made up of aboriginal people, but 16% of the homeless in Toronto are aboriginal.

* Toronto’s emergency shelter system has 4,500 beds but was used by 16,000 homeless people in 2014.

* $44.1 million (Can.) has been allocated by Ontario to help support affordable housing for aboriginal people.

* More than $9.1 million has been committed to build or  repair 126 units of affordable housing, as of Sept. 2015.

Imprisonment of Girls is Skyrocketing

The number of children behind bars is at the lowest rate in over 20 years — but the portion of young prisoners who are girls is on an alarming rise. In 1992, girls made up 20% of the children arrested in the U.S. Two decades later, that figure has jumped nearly 50%, according to “Gender Injustice,” a new report on the plight of women in American incarceration commissioned by the Crittenton National Foundation and the National Women’s Law Center.

Photo by Susan Madden Lankford

Photo by Susan Madden Lankford

The data are especially vexing because girls aren’t committing more crimes or suddenly becoming more violent; they account for only 9% of the murders committed by juveniles, and they are far more likely than boys to be arrested for non-violent crimes. Experts say the increase among girls is largely due to more aggressive enforcement of minor offenses — offenses that are often rooted in the experience of abuse or trauma.

In 2012, the most recent year that data was reported by the federal government, girls represented 76 %of the juveniles arrested for prostitution and 38% of the minors involved in domestic offenses, according to the Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, which tracks minors’ involvement in the penal system.

Many girls are also arrested for offenses that wouldn’t even be considered crimes if they were adults, such as underage drinking (40%) or missing curfew (29%). Researchers said that these behaviors are often symptoms of abuse and shouldn’t be criminalized.

Francine Sherman, the report’s author and a professor at Boston College Law School wrote:

The current justice system responds to behaviors caused by trauma and abuse with punishment and fails to offer girls effective solutions and a healthy path forward.

Girls in the juvenile justice system continue to experience abuse at unprecedented rates. According to a report by the DOJ last year, 84% are victims of family violence and 41% have suffered physical abuse. They are 4.4 times more likely than boys to be sexually assaulted before their arrests.

Incarcerated girls also suffer from mental illness at higher rates than boys. In Ohio, for instance, 96% of girls in juvenile jails and prisons are receiving treatment for mental disorders, as opposed to 44% of the boys.

Perversely, experts say, arrests of girls often arise from situations in which they are the victims — of human trafficking, of physical or emotional abuse, or other coercion.

Dana Shoenberg, a visiting professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law who has done extensive research on gender relations in the justice system, says:

Girls who end up in trouble with the court system often have a complex trauma history that caused them to have mental health needs. There is a clear relationship between those two. Girls with mental health conditions often face more challenges than boys when they get locked up.


Sometimes, the people in juvenile facilities don’t have the experience or have the training to deal with girls and their trauma. The programming is just not set up to meet the needs of incarcerated girls.

The story of Danielle Hicks-Best, published in the Washington Post last March, offers a glimpse into how ostensible victims can be further victimized by the criminal system. Danielle was 11 when she told police she had been raped twice. Despite medical evidence that showed signs of sexual assault, police concluded her sexual encounter was consensual — even though she was well below the age of consent — and charged her with filing a false report. She pled guilty to the charges and spent several painful years in and out of detention and treatment.

The authors of “The Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline: The Girls’ Story,” another 2015 study by several U.S. organizations that advocate for human rights, wrote

When law enforcement views girls as perpetrators, and when their cases are not dismissed or diverted but sent deeper into the justice system, the cost is twofold: girls’ abusers are shielded from accountability, and the trauma that is the underlying cause of the behavior is not addressed.

It is a continuation of the phenomenon we see with school offenses — rather than addressing the environmental issue, they are blaming the kids, in this case the girls. They are being taken out of their homes and pushed in the criminal justice system when this is a family issue that should be handled by a family and child protection system.

The juvenile justice system will be fixed when law enforcement officers have a better understanding of the girls they are arresting and the trauma they have experienced. Trauma is a driving force. You are putting girls in the system that are traumatized and the response to trauma is often misunderstood.

Juvenile Justice System in Virginia is Badly in Need of Reform


Photo by Susan Madden Lankford

Photo by Susan Madden Lankford

A recent paper, Juvenile Justice Reform, co-issued by Justice Fellowship, Right On Crime and the Thomas Jefferson Institute, makes the case that when it comes to Virginia’s juvenile justice system, current policies and practices are not effective in preparing juveniles to be successful citizens in the community.

According to the Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ), “after controlling for offense and risk and protective factors, the probability of a juvenile’s re-arrest increases by 32.7% for every additional year” that a young person remains incarcerated in the Commonwealth. In short, the longer someone stays in the system, the more likely they are to return to the system.  

More than 11% of youthful prisoners are there on a misdemeanor offense, and more than a third are incarcerated on non-person felonies – crimes that didn’t include confrontations with another person.

One of the largest such crimes is larceny. In fact, more youths were jailed in Virginia on a primary conviction of larceny than any other offense. And while that may sound a bit frightening, consider that Virginia has the lowest threshold in the nation for felony larceny: $200. That $200 threshold hasn’t changed since 1980, with the result that theft of a ubiquitous cell phone or a college textbook now meets the definition of felony larceny, with a much higher potential prison sentence. If the definition had simply kept pace with inflation, that threshold would be $565 today. Is that really our idea of felony larceny and a community risk?

The result is that youths are jailed in Virginia for crimes that would be misdemeanors in every other state, driving up the state’s incarceration rates and costs.

More importantly: Non-violent youths who may have simply made a mistake are put in a prison environment with more hardened criminals. Removed from their family (often hundreds of miles away) and other community support networks like their local church, they are more likely to turn to the internal “support networks” of a juvenile prison – and that frequently leads to a worsening turn, not a better one.

One result: Virginia’s rearrest rate three years after release from juvenile correctional centers is 80%, even while recidivism rates in several other states is declining.

This process is expensive, too.. Virginia’s two existing juvenile correctional centers cost $28-35 million each, or about $150,000 per youth per year. In other states, the daily cost of incarcerating a single youth is about $240; in Virginia, the cost soars to more than $400.

To its credit, the Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice has already begun instituting reforms – closing most of the big facilities and opening wings in their remaining facilities with a high premium on workers trained in both security and rehabilitation.

Chris Braunlich, vice president of the Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy, says:

The paper suggests going the extra mile by decentralizing the juvenile justice system even further. A youth incarcerated in a prison that may be up to five hours away from their community is cut off from the resources most likely to aid him or her in rehabilitation and a return to a law-abiding life. Parental communication may be severed for disciplinary reasons, and home-based faith institutions are unable work early-on to help transition youth into jobs, school, and a better life.

This is particularly the case for those with mental health disorders. More than 65% percent of youths admitted to the Reception and Diagnostic Center for the DJJ had symptoms of at least one mental health disorder and more than three quarters needed mental health treatment. While services are available in prison, they are far more effective if the opportunity exists to establish early relationships with the mental health providers in the communities to which a youth will return.

Yet, even though many local facilities are in position to provide youths with more effective re-entry tools, education, family support systems and job connections, a perverse financial disincentive exists to ship the offenders far away from home. While localities do not pay the cost of youths committed to the state, they are responsible to pay most of the cost of local detention or community-based treatment.

Thus, the state makes the greater investment in centralized structures which are less effective, while making only a minor investment in community-based programs that are demonstrated to reduce recidivism by 7-22%.

High costs. High recidivism rates. Less effectiveness. If a government program costs more than the average and isn’t having the desired outcomes, it should be ripe for review. So, too, is Virginia’s juvenile justice system.


Abuse of Girls, Particularly Minorites, Leads Increasingly to Incarceration

It is imperative that we stop the cruel and

Photo by Susan Madden Lankford

Photo by Susan Madden Lankford

unjust funneling of victims of abuse into incarceration, and that we improve the lives of sexually abused girls currently in our juvenile-justice system. Recently, the Ms. Foundation for Women, the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality and the Human Rights Project for Girls released a report, “The Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline: The Girls’ Story,” with groundbreaking new data on this problem. Among the study’s many findings are data confirming that sexual abuse is a “primary predictor” for involvement with the juvenile-justice system, and that girls of color—particularly African-Americans, Native Americans, and Latinas—are disproportionately affected.

According to the report:

Native American girls are in residential placements at a rate of 179 per 100,000; African-American girls at a rate of 123 per 100,000; and Latinas at a rate of 47 per 100,000. By comparison, 37 per 100,000 of non-Hispanic white girls are confined.

The report also finds that the sexual-abuse rate of girls in the juvenile-justice system (31 percent) is more than four times higher than the rate for boys (7 percent).

The report explains tht one in four American girls will experience some form of sexual violence by the age of 18. Fifteen percent of sexual assault and rape victims are under the age of 12. Nearly half of all female rape survivors were victimized before the age of 18. And girls between the ages of 16 and 19 are four times more likely than the general population to be victims of rape, attempted rape or sexual assault.
A recent U.S. Department of Justice study shows that the increased arrest and incarceration of girls over the past 20 years has not been the result of increased criminal activity or violence. Instead, more and more girls are being arrested and incarcerated because of the aggressive enforcement of non-serious offenses, many of which stem from abuse and trauma. Gender stereotypes contribute to the problem, as the decision to arrest and detain girls in many of these situations is negatively influenced by whether the decision maker perceives girls to have violated gender norms—even though such deviation may actually be a response to trauma.

In fact, girls are ending up in the juvenile-justice system as a result of behaviors directly connected to their sexual abuse, such as running away, truancy or substance abuse. Outrageously, girls who have been trafficked are often arrested for prostitution—even when they are too young to consent to sex when they enter the juvenile-justice system.

African-American girls constitute 14 percent of the general population nationally but 33.2 percent of girls detained and committed. Native American girls are also disproportionately involved in the juvenile justice system: they are 1 percent of the general youth population but 3.5 percent of detained and committed girls.

In a 2006 study of girls involved in Oregon’s juvenile justice system, 93 percent had experienced sexual or physical abuse; 76 percent had experienced at least one incident of sexual abuse by the age of 13; and 63 percent had experienced both physical and sexual abuse. Similarly, in a 2009 study of delinquent girls in South Carolina, 81 percent reported a history of sexual violence, and 42 percent reported dating violence.

Finally, a 1998 study of juvenile-justice-involved girls in California found that 81 percent of girls had experienced one or more incident of physical or sexual abuse; 56 percent reported one or more forms of sexual abuse; and 45 percent reported being beaten or burned at least once.

In the California study, of the 56 percent of girls who reported sexual abuse — which can take many forms — 40 percent of girls reported being raped or sodomized at least once, and 17 percent reported multiple occurrences of abuse. Girls in the Oregon study, meanwhile, reported they had experienced an average of over four forms of severe sexual abuse before the age of 12.

Yet when girls enter the juvenile justice system, mental health screenings are rarely administered by licensed professionals, and follow-up assessments and treatment are frequently inadequate. Some studies have found that this lack of services exists more often in facilities that serve girls. According to a recent nationwide census conducted by the US Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), only approximately half the youth in the juvenile justice system are placed in a facility that provides mental health evaluations of all residents. Follow-up care is often insufficient even for youth who do receive evaluations. And a significant majority of juvenile justice youth (88 percent) reside in facilities in which mental health counselors are not licensed professionals

Gina Womack, executive director of Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children (FFLIC), says:

At the nonprofit organization I head, we have seen the devastating impact of sexual abuse, including the alarming and shameful increased incarceration rates of girl survivors. This is not only cruel and unjust, it also fails to deal with the underlying trauma that results from sexual abuse. As a result, victims are further traumatized by the juvenile-justice system.
There are many parallels between the sexual-abuse-to-prison pipeline mentioned in the recent report and school-to-prison-pipeline issues. Rather than providing the care, counseling, and support these young people need, we are allowing vulnerable youths to be pushed out of schools and into the juvenile-justice system. We are failing at providing the safe and supportive environments young people need in our schools and communities, particularly for youths of color.
Girls are ending up in the juvenile-justice system as a result of behaviors directly connected to their sexual abuse, such as running away, truancy or substance abuse.

Through an initiative called the Let Kids Be Kids Campaign, FFLIC is working to address Louisiana’s failure to care for its most vulnerable youths. The initiative is raising awareness about laws in place that effectively criminalize children, and it is working to ensure that all children have the necessary support to grow, thrive, and reach their full potential.

Womack adds:

For example, we are working to reduce the number of youths suspended from school for habitual absence, tardiness, or ‘willful disobedience’—a subjective categorization susceptible to racial bias that schools are often ill-equipped to deal with. Approximately 56 percent of African-American youths in the juvenile-justice system report a prior school suspension. Out-of-school suspensions cut classroom time for children who need it most, and research demonstrates a correlation between harsh discipline practices, dropouts, and incarceration. Students with multiple suspensions are three times more likely to drop out by 10th grade than students who have not been suspended. Our group urges educators to work to ensure that children who are in crisis or exhibit challenging behaviors are kept in school, where they are surrounded by sources of knowledge and opportunity.
Another approach we stress is ‘positive behavioral interventions and supports,’ ‘a rehabilitative practice focused on developing and nourishing support structures for students to help improve their lives, both in and out of the classroom and strengthen positive behaviors. Rather than centering exclusively on reactive disciplinary approaches, it uses modeling and positive reinforcement to foster a good learning environment for young people.



Once inside, girls encounter a system that is often ill-equipped to identify and treat the violence and trauma that lie at the root of victimized girls’ arrests. More harmful still is the significant risk that the punitive environment will re-trigger girls’ trauma and even subject them to new incidents of sexual victimization, which can exponentially compound the profound harms inflicted by the original abuse.

This report exposes the ways in which we criminalize girls — especially girls of color — who have been sexually and physically abused, and it offers policy recommendations to dismantle the abuse to prison pipeline. It illustrates the pipeline with examples, including the detention of girls who are victims of sex trafficking, girls who run away or become truant because of abuse they experience and girls who cross into juvenile justice from the child welfare system.

Tfhe report recommend the following changes to improve conditions for girls in the juvenile justice system:

• Implement accountability mechanisms to ensure that states to comply with standards and guidelines for gender-specific services, including issuing annual public reports on progress towards compliance with standards and guidelines.

• Increase funds available to incentivize states to create gender-specific, trauma-informed prevention and treatment programs and services.

• Require at least one State Advisory Group member to have expertise in gender-specific issues, such as sexual abuse and domestic child sex trafficking, as well as knowledge of effective interventions.

• Require states to employ validated, comprehensive screening and assessments to evaluate all children entering the juvenile justice system for trauma and to develop appropriate treatment plans and programming in response to identified needs.

• Require states to screen children at intake for commercial sexual exploitation and divert identified victims away from the juvenile justice system whenever possible.

• Explicitly prioritize funding for the development of programs to train law enforcement officers and other juvenile justice system staff to better identify and respond to trauma.

• Require states to evaluate the effectiveness of juvenile justice programs that address the needs of girls; develop plans to remedy identified gaps and deficiencies; and report on progress annually.

We should require the collection of data on girls in the juvenile justice system and their outcomes disaggregated and cross tabulated by race and ethnicity, including the following information: The number of victims of commercial sexual exploitation involved in the juvenile justice system; the conditions of confinement for girls, including frequency of solitary confinement or isolation, strip searches, shackling during childbirth, inappropriate use of restraints, or other practices that may exacerbate girls’ trauma; the number of pregnant and parenting girls in the system and the treatment they receive, from pregnancy testing through postpartum care and new parenting services.

In addition, the report recommends that institutions fully enforce — and strengthen — the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA). PREA is a powerful tool that can help prevent abuse against girls in juvenile justice if effectively enforced. Under the law, facilities must screen inmates for a history of sexual abuse and provide appropriate medical and mental health care within 14 days of intake. Youth who are victimized while in a facility, meanwhile, must have timely access to emergency medical and crisis intervention services. PREA standards also limit procedures that are likely to trigger re-traumatization, such as pat-downs by officers of the opposite sex, strip searches, and solitary confinement. And the law requires state facilities to collect data on allegations of sexual abuse, aggregate the data at least yearly, and make that data publicly available.

Although these provisions represent progress, enforcement mechanisms are weak. There is no private right of action to enforce PREA’s standards.

Additional recommendations from the report: a) Provide Gender-Specific Physical and Mental Health Care In Justice Settings, b) Implement Gender-Specific Health Screening and Assessment, c) Require Facilities to be Accredited for the Provision of Medical Care, d) Provide Comprehensive Reproductive Health Care and e) Include Trauma-Related Health Treatment in Re-entry/Aftercare Plans.

Dismantling the Pipeline: Policy Recommendations to Keep Victims of Sex Trafficking Out of Juvenile Justice: a) End the Arrest and Detention of Youth for Prostitution and b) Enact Effective and Universal Safe Harbor Laws. States that continue to allow the arrest and detention of children on prostitution charges should enact safe harbor or immunity laws to ensure that trafficked youth are treated as victims, not perpetrators.

Laws that criminalize the act of sex with minors are too rarely enforced in the context of child sex trafficking. In many cases, child-sex buyers escape with little or no accountability, despite the traumatic effect of their acts on the victims. To help put an end to the commercial sexual exploitation of children, advocates and lawmakers should: • Educate the public on the role of buyers in perpetuating systematic violence against underage girls and other vulnerable youth; • Increase training of law enforcement and prosecutors on investigations and prosecutions of child-sex buyers and redirect resources to scale up operations against buyers rather than criminalizing victims; • Instruct federal and state anti-trafficking task forces throughout the country to target buyers of child sex in their operations; and • Encourage the use of federal anti-trafficking statutes and state laws that criminalize sex with minors to prosecute buyers of underage girls.

Finally, Policy Recommendations to Reduce Foster Girls’ Crossing Over Into the Juvenile Justice System: • Implement screenings upon entry into the child welfare system to identify a history of trauma. • Develop cross-system collaboration between the juvenile justice and child welfare systems. Add gender-responsive components to improve services and outcomes for dually involved girls, and • Limit providers’ referrals to law enforcement to manage challenging behaviors.





Canada’s “At Home/Chez Toi” Proves “Housing First” Helps Mentally Ill Homeless


Photo by Susan Madden Lankford


Each year, up to 200,000 people are homeless in Canada — at an estimated cost of seven billion dollars. In 2008, the Government of Canada allocated $110 million to the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC) for a research demonstration project on mental health and homelessness. The result, At Home/Chez Soi was a four-year project in five cities that aimed to provide practical, meaningful support to Canadians experiencing homelessness and mental health problems.

In doing so, the MHCC was demonstrating, evaluating and sharing knowledge about the effectiveness of the “housing first” (HF) approach, where people are provided with a place to live and then offered recovery-oriented services and supports that best meet their individual needs. Officially launched in 2009, At Home/Chez Soi sought to learn whether the housing first approach works—and, if so, for whom and at what cost. To gather the most comprehensive data, projects were established in five cities, each with a particular area of focus:

  • Vancouver (people also experiencing problematic substance use)
  • Winnipeg (urban Aboriginal population)
  • Toronto (ethno-racialized populations, including new immigrants who do not speak English)
  • Montréal (includes a vocational study)
  • Moncton (services in smaller communities)

During the project, 1,158 Canadian from the streets and shelters received the housing first intervention.The National At Home/Chez Soi Final Report, released in 2014, demonstrated that housing first works to rapidly end homelessness for people experiencing mental illness, and can be effectively implemented in cities of different size and different cultural contexts. It also proved that HF is a sound investment, with every $10 invested in Housing First services resulting in an average savings of $9.60 for participants with high needs and $3.42 for participants with moderate needs.

The study demonstrated that housing first can be effectively adapted according to local needs, including rural and smaller city settings such as Moncton and communities with diverse mixes of people (e.g., Aboriginal or immigrant populations) like Winnipeg or Toronto.

The study also revealed more about the small group (about 13%) for whom housing first as currently delivered did not result in stable housing in the first year. This group tended to have longer histories of homelessness, lower educational levels, more connection to street-based social networks, more serious mental health conditions and some indication of greater cognitive impairment.

For some participants, involvement in the program likely resulted in the identification of unmet needs for more acute or rehabilitative levels of care in the short term.

The report stated:

Living in shelters and on the streets requires that enormous energy be put into basic survival. The circumstances are not conducive to participating in treatment and managing health issues. On average, participants had been homeless in their lifetime for just less than five years when they enrolled in the study, and many had a history of poverty and disadvantage reaching back to early childhood. For some, the road to recovery after housing can be rapid, but for most it is more gradual, and setbacks are to be expected.

Across all sites in the qualitative interviews, 61%  of the housing first participants described a positive life course since the study began, and in general, the study documented clear and immediate improvements, followed by more modest continuing ones for the remainder of the study period. The study revealed measurable improvements in participants’ mental health and substance-related problems.

Key findings included:
1) Housing first can be effectively implemented in Canadian cities of different
size and different ethno-racial and cultural composition. The HF approach was successfully adapted to serve Aboriginal, immigrant and other ethno-racial groups in a culturally sensitive manner.
2)  Housing first rapidly ends homelessness. Across all cities, HF participants in At Home/Chez Soi rapidly obtained housing and retained their housing at a much higher rate than the treatment-as-usual group.
3) Housing first is a sound investment. The economic analysis found some cost
savings and cost offsets.
4) It is Housing First, but not Housing Only. The support and treatment services
offered by the HF programs contributed to appropriate shifts away from many types of crisis, acute and institutional services towards more consistent community and outreach-based services. This shift supports and encourages more appropriate use of health and shelter services.
5) Having a place to live and the right supports can lead to other positive
outcomes above and beyond those provided by existing services. Housing first
participants also demonstrated somewhat better quality of life and community
functioning outcomes than those receiving existing housing and health services
in each city.
6 There are many ways in which Housing First can change lives. These groups,
on average, improved more and described fewer negative experiences than others. Understanding the reasons for differences of this kind will help to
tailor future approaches, including understanding the small group for whom housing first did not result in stable housing.
7 Getting Housing first right is essential to optimizing outcomes. Housing stability, quality of life and community functioning outcomes were all more positive for programs that operated most closely to the standards created initially by Pathways Housing First in the United States.

Why Oklahoma Has Imprisoned the Most Women for 20 Years–and How to Fix This

Over the last 20 years, Oklahoma

Photo by Susan Madden Lankford

Photo by Susan Madden Lankford

has become the country’s capital of female incarceration with 127 of every 100,000 women behind bars, double the national rate of 63 per 100,000. It’s a situation so pronounced that even the Oklahoma Department of Corrections has had to acknowledge it: “Oklahoma has consistently ranked first in the rate of female incarceration nationally,” the department stated in both its 2013 and 2014 annual reports.

But Oklahoma’s prisons aren’t filled with women because they pose more of a threat than women elsewhere; the state simply penalizes women’s actions much more forcefully. At the same time, social safety nets have been cut away, limiting women’s options for other means of survival.

According to Susan Sharp, a professor at the University of Oklahoma and the author of Mean Lives, Mean LawsOklahoma Women Prisoners:

Drug possession and drug trafficking are the top two reasons for the ballooning women’s prison population. Of the 1,152 women entering Oklahoma’s prison system in 2013, 52.6% were arrested for a drug offense, with 26.2% ultimately sentenced for possession and 16.6% for distribution. Keep in mind that Oklahoma often ratchets up the charges by counting possessing, distributing, transporting or manufacturing a certain quantity of drugs as trafficking. Five grams of crack or twenty grams of meth can be charged as a trafficking act.

Moreover, sentencing is more severe in Oklahoma than elsewhere. Compare the state’s mean sentence for “drug trafficking” to the country’s mean sentence for the same crime: In Oklahoma, the average penalty is 10.3 years, while the country’s is 6 years.

In addition, conditions in Oklahoma often push women down the path toward prison. Oklahoma ranks among the bottom 16 states for women’s mental health, meaning that Oklahoma experience poor mental-health conditions, including stress, depression and eating disorders, at a higher average than in many other states. In 2015, it ranked among the bottom 10 states for women’s economic security and access to health insurance and higher education.

The result of all these tangled, competing forces is a vicious cycle in which the women who have the least access to social and economic independence, health insurance and mental health treatment are the most at risk for imprisonment.

And, as in other parts of the country, women of color tend to suffer disproportionately: in a state where black people make up only 7.7%  of the entire population, nearly 20% of the women’s prison population are African-American. Native American women are 13% of the prison population, but Native people of all genders are only 9% of the state population.

Yet rather than address these disparities, Oklahoma continues to lock up the hundreds of women each year who are most vulnerable to them. Recently, however, the fastest-growing segment of Oklahoma’s drug-crime prisoners have been white women, convicted of illegal possession and/or sale of prescription pain medications and/or meth.

For Oklahoma’s thousand-plus female inmates, prison does not merely mean the loss of liberty; it also means a loss of their children, sometimes permanently. In 1997, Congress passed the federal Adoption and Safe Families Act, stipulating that the state begin proceedings to terminate parental rights if a child had spent 15 of the past 22 months in foster care. In 2014, Susan Sharp conducted a survey of incarcerated mothers for Oklahoma’s Commission on Children and Youth and found that nearly 10% of the women participating had children in foster care, placing them at greater risk for permanent separation from their parents.

Fortunately, to some degree Oklahoma recognizes that it has a problem. To combat the drastic increase in incarceration caused by the War on Drugs (as well as the accompanying costs), counties have turned to drug courts, which send women (and men) charged with a nonviolent drug crime to treatment programs, rather than prison.

However, failing to complete the stipulations of the drug court can lead to prison, sometimes for a lengthier sentence than if a person had initially pled guilty. Oklahoma has a 42% rate of drug-court failure, Sharp noted in her book. She has stated that the average sentence for failure is 74 months. Most of these failures are for flunking a urine test or not paying court-imposed fines. It’s an “alternative” that is also a pathway to prison.

Sentencing is another area in which state is beginning to recognize the need for change. Sharp has stated:

We definitely need to revisit lengthy sentences, especially for drug crimes and low-level property crimes.

In February 2015, state legislators introduced House Bill 1574, which allows for a 20-year sentence instead of requiring life without parole for a third drug offense (so long as the two prior convictions are not drug trafficking). And on May 6, 2015, Governor Mary Fallin signed it into law. But 55 people serving life without parole for drug offenses won’t be going home, because the bill is not retroactive.

So what could stem the flow of women to prison and end the state’s womb-to-prison pipeline? Oklahoma’s incarcerated women understand how their lives—and their lack of opportunities—helped snare them in the criminal-justice net. And they know what needs to change for women in the state. Reflecting on their experiences, they see the holes in the state’s social safety net that would have kept them from falling out of society and into prison. They also know the solutions that would help keep other lives from being destroyed. But these solutions are systemic changes that might take decades, if not generations, and they would refashion Oklahoma dramatically.

For the past three years, Dr. Jaime Burns, an assistant professor at the University of Central Oklahoma’s School of Criminal Justice, has taken about 15 university students to Mabel Bassett Correctional Center to meet with an equal number of incarcerated women as part of the Inside-Out Prison Exchange program. Each week, the group discusses different issues, including the idea of restorative justice. Restorative justice is a theory and practice by which people who have harmed others take steps to try to repair the damage. The process includes not only the person who has done the harm and the person(s) harmed, but also their families and communities.

In an era in which marijuana is legal in five states and legalization is pending in more than a dozen others, decriminalization of minor drug offenses is very important.

How many alcoholics are in prison for anything other than DUI? That’s because the cost of their drug of choice is not prohibitive. Nobody robs a liquor store so they can buy liquor.”