Kids, Trauma, and Adult Jail

It's hard to talk to boys who have been raped. Beyond the basics, I don't know what to say. Same goes for the kids who have witnessed rape, or fallen victim to other brutal attacks. Every week, I visit these kids. They are housed in an adult jail in Louisiana. All of the kids are black. I am trained to maintain eye contact and say, "I'm sorry," followed by, "It's not your fault." But if not theirs, whose fault is it?

More than 10,000 American children and adolescents are housed in adult jails and prisons. A hugely disproportionate number are of color. My juvenile clients are pre-trial, meaning that they are locked in adult jail immediately after arrest. They are poor and can't afford bail. Many are disabled. The juvenile tier prohibits fresh air and direct sunlight. One client has been incarcerated for five years while awaiting trial. He is taken outside only when shackled to travel to and from court in a sheriff's vehicle.

What's happening inside, though, is more disquieting. On the jail's juvenile tier, which is supposed to isolate kids from adults, a 15 year-old boy was recently forced to perform oral sex on a 19 year-old at knifepoint. Other boys watched. They described the weapon as a shank. One did so in tears: another vacantly, disassociated, as if trapped in a dream-state. In the jail's visitation booth, the glass that separates us is shattered but miraculously intact. I wonder if my clients see my face as I theirs: cracked and framed by shards.

Another organization, the Louisiana Center for Children's Rights, has been leading a campaign to move all kids from the adult jail into a nearby juvenile facility. The newly erected juvenile lockdown is equipped with a school, a basketball court, social workers, a medical psychologist, and opportunities for the kids to engage in group therapy. It also provides greater adult supervision. Yet on average, nearly half of the juvenile facility's beds remain empty. Why?

There is a law on the books here--a version of it has been adopted by most U.S. states. It says children arrested for certain crimes must be transferred from juvenile to criminal court, and detained in an "appropriate adult facility." For advocates, the most compelling argument so far is the adult jail is neither appropriate, nor a facility. The argument is being made before judges and politicians with little success. This is, however, a legal, not a moral argument.

What goes untold is the underlying movement that sparked the legislation. Two decades ago, John J. Dilulio Jr., a white political scientist at Princeton, warned the nation of a rising tidal wave of juvenile super predators. Dilulio, and other academics, claimed that the problem was "most acute among black inner city males." Politicians pounced on the opportunity. Louisiana joined more than a dozen states that dismantled its juvenile code to confront the oncoming epidemic. The academics' theory, of course, was debunked. Like the legislation that followed, it was baseless, and rooted in racial prejudice.

Fueling the problem is today, when a young black kid is arrested, it's hard for many to believe he could be innocent. Especially if he implicates himself. Recently, two city detectives interrogated a kid about an armed robbery that took place in a bar. The kid confessed. He even described the bar's interior, the bartender, and patrons. Surveillance video later revealed the kid never stepped foot inside the bar. The detectives succeeded only in terrifying the kid into concocting a story. The kid spent nearly three months enduring the horrors of adult jail, and if it wasn't for his public defender, he'd still be there.

In the adult system, resource-poor kids are sitting ducks for prosecutors, who are notorious for overcharging the indigent. The adult jail conditions are so dire they place additional pressure on kids to give up and plead guilty to jacked charges. They'd rather trade the daily terror in adult jail for prison upstate.

Though extremely rare, kids do commit heinous crimes. Of these, only a minuscule fraction could be found indelibly psychotic, or irretrievably incompetent. The vast majority have endured severe trauma; they've been burned, sodomized, and beaten by the people who were supposed to care for them. Yet for these kids, research demonstrates therapy and other restorative measures are effective forms of rehabilitation.

To his credit, Dilulio has since recognized as much. He has apologized for his mistakes, and advocated against the criminalization of juveniles. He also renewed his faith, demanding compassionate treatment for kids betrayed of their childhoods. Pope Francis voiced a similar refrain; he advocated against the application of criminal penalties on youth, and life in prison without the possibility parole. Elected officials refuse to be as self-reflective. The myth of the juvenile super predator is still too seductive. For kids incarcerated in adult jails and prisons, the trauma continues without end.