Equal Justice Initiative

We recently received an annual report from the Equal Justice Initiative, an organization that primarily works with poor defendants/prisoners who have not received fair treatment in the US court and corrections systems. One of their major areas of concentration is on capital cases, i.e., death penalty cases. I want to focus in this blog post however on one section of the report which deals with their work with juveniles (defendants/prisoners under 18 years old).

Background: According to a US federal study, approximately 14,500 juveniles were in adult prisons and jails in the year 1997. (Note that this number is low, as the US Federal Bureau of Prisons and several state prison systems refused to take part in the study.) This number increased each year from 1989 to 1997. (According to the Campaign for Youth and Justice, that number now averages around 11,000 on any given day.) In 1997, forty-four US states imprisoned juveniles in adult facilities, of which only 18 states put juveniles in separate units from adults. These young people are much more vulnerable to harm and long-term deleterious effects from typical prison practices and conditions such as isolation, physical and chemical restraint, abuse from staff, lack of adequate health care and education, etc.

A few points jump out from an SRV perspective:

• The heightened vulnerability of children in prisons, particularly those sent to adult prisons but also those in juvenile correctional facilities, where they are for example at much higher risk of sexual assault.

Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) works on both a personal as well as a societal level to try to reduce the devaluation and negative treatment of juveniles in adult prisons. They defend individual juvenile clients, some as young as 13, but also have argued successfully in the US Supreme Court for a broader legal prohibition against life sentences without parole for juveniles (note the efforts on the individual and societal level; cf. the chart in Wolfensberger, 1998, 78-80). This opens the possibility that at least some currently incarcerated young people will be released someday, thus getting them out of the prisoner role. And others in the future will be protected from gaining the lifelong prisoner role. Part of EJI’s rationale is that from a developmental perspective, children have a greater potential for potential change, including positive moral change.

• Prisons and jails are obviously based on the correctional model. From an SRV perspective, reflect on these three points:

1) Consider the possibility that “Some models may be morally or technically flawed in their very essence, because they build on fundamentally false assumptions” (Wolfensberger, 1998, 116). What assumptions lie behind the practice of incarcerating juveniles in adult prisons?

2) Consider the model incoherency of an adult prison system that incarcerates juveniles. Think about model elements such as the staff, assumptions, settings, grouping and processes. How are these elements mismatched in terms of the identity and needs of the young people?

3) “One potential sign of model incoherency is if a model does not make sense to members of a culture” (Wolfensberger, 1998, 117).

Posted on December 18, 2010 at 12:17 pm by MTumeinski · Permalink
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