After two decades of researching mass incarceration – and advocating for its demise – I decided in 2005 to take more direct action and accepted a job running corrections departments, first in Washington, D.C., then in New York City. It was a rude awakening.
The juvenile corrections department in Washington had about 1,000 clients, about 200 of whom were confined to a detention facility, and a staff of 800. For the previous 19 years, the department had been under a court order for unconstitutional conditions; I was the 20th leader in that time. In the year prior, two scathing reports, one by the District’s inspector general and another from plaintiffs’ experts, detailed appalling conditions: Beatings of children in custody were commonplace, inmates stuffed clothing around the toilets to keep out rats and cockroaches, young people were locked up for so long that they often defecated or urinated in their cells. Youths who came in clean tested positive for marijuana after 30 days of confinement, suggesting that it was easier to score drugs in my facility than on the streets of the District of Columbia.
My staff and I quickly uncovered more abuses. Staff members were sexually harassing the kids and one another. One of my corrections officers married a youth shortly after the boy was released from custody. A teacher who had been confined in the facility when she was a teenager confided to us that she had been sexually assaulted by a staff member who was still in our employ years later. The female staff members widely complained that, if they didn’t perform sexually for their supervisors, they were threatened with finding themselves alone and unaided with the facility’s inmates in dangerous situations.
These abuses are not meted out equally in the United States, with African-Americans and Latinos incarcerated at far higher rates than whites. In my five years running the Washington system, I never saw one white youth (other than volunteers) in my correctional facility.
Cleaning this up was no mean feat. When a boy complained that he had been savagely and publicly beaten by a staff member (the medical staff said his bruising was consistent with his account), only a single corrections officer came forward as a witness. Because of the strong taboo against “snitching” inside correctional facilities, the witness was so harassed by fellow corrections officers that his testimony during an arbitration hearing was shaky and deemed not credible.
Eventually, we substantially reduced the number of incarcerated youths by creating a network of community-based programs, and replaced the 208-bed facility with a 60-bed one that is now often underutilized. Along the way, many of the hard-line staff members left, either because they were fired, disciplined through more rigorous oversight (including performance reviews and drug tests) or just because they disagreed with our more rehabilitative approach.
In New York, where I ran the probation department, I didn’t witness the same hair-raising institutional abuse, mostly because we didn’t run any facilities. But probation officers reported that they routinely re-incarcerated people on their caseloads for technical, noncriminal violations largely because they were afraid that if they didn’t, and their client was rearrested, they’d be held to account. As a result, our clients were frivolously deposited into New York’s jail and juvenile facilities, both of which were sued by the Justice Department during my tenure for conditions chillingly similar to what I had witnessed in Washington. When we put a stop to the over-incarceration, crime did not spike and there was a remarkably low felony rearrest rate of 4 percent a year for people who completed probation.
Two things surprised me about my experiences on the inside.
First, horrific institutional conditions are common, not exceptional. Too often, the general public views correctional atrocities as idiosyncratic – leading to a focus on firing this administrator or arresting that staff member – rather than endemic.
Since 1970, systemic violence, abuse and excessive use of isolation and restraints have been documented in juvenile institutions in 39 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a philanthropic group devoted to children’s poverty issues. During that time, there have been 57 lawsuits in these jurisdictions resulting in court-sanctioned remedies. These kinds of data led Patrick McCarthy, the Casey Foundation president and a former youth corrections commissioner for Delaware, to say, “I believe it’s long past time to close these inhumane, ineffective, wasteful factories of failure once and for all. Every one of them.”
The second major surprise was how much I liked many of my staff members. I charged into my job with an air of moral superiority. Surely, I thought, such conditions could be created only by ethically bankrupt characters who would wear their depravity on their sleeves.
But it was far more complicated. Just about everyone in my Washington facility knew who was beating the kids, having sex with them and selling them drugs. After all, our facility housed only about 200 young people, roughly the size of a small middle school.
Yet many of the churchgoing people on my staff were ostensibly very friendly people who, despite their silence, believed they were advancing public safety. They attended our football games and plays and cheered the youths on, sitting in the stands with their parents. They were the good guys, rendered complicit by years in a corrupt system.
No easy answers
Thankfully, there are increasing calls from the left and right to end America’s imprisonment binge, from President Barack Obama and the American Civil Liberties Union on one side to Newt Gingrich and the Koch brothers on the other. Some systems have done just that. According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, there was a 48 percent drop in the juvenile commitment rate from 1997 to 2011, largely through the use of better risk screening, shortening lengths of stay and improving community programming. The Sentencing Project recently found that the states of New York, New Jersey and California all reduced their adult incarceration rates by at least 25 percent and enjoyed better-than-average declines in crime while doing so.
From what I witnessed during my decade on the inside, the end of mass incarceration can’t come soon enough; conditions poison staff members and kids alike and harm, rather than improve, public safety. Incarceration should be the backstop, not the backbone, of our crime-control efforts.
The New York Times
Vincent Schiraldi is a senior research fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Program in Criminal Justice.