a bird and a bottle

Girls in Custody

I am often frustrated with the lack of conversation about criminal justice reform both in the blogosphere and in the American political discourse. But then there are days like today, when there is a ton of good stuff out there (TimesSelect) about issues related to criminal justice.

This weekend, the NY Times featured an article about the rising numbers of young women involved in the juvenile justice system. It’s not that girls are becoming more involved than ever before in criminal activity; they’re just getting noticed more.

TomPaine (which is on a roll) is also considering the special issues related to girls in state custody, the other day publishing an article by ACLU Fellow Mie Lewis about violence and abuse of women and girls who are incarcerated.

Lewis focuses on the recent meeting of the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), which discussed violence and discrimination against women and girls, particularly the treatment of girls in state custody — an issue of special concern for Lewis, who authored the ACLU’s recent report, Custody and Control: Conditions of Confinement in New York’s Juvenile Prisons for Girls. She writes:

One group of girls routinely denied basic rights in the U.S.—and in many other nations represented at the CSW session—are those in conflict with the law, and especially those in state custody. The reports of U.N. and NGO representatives during the CSW session made it clear that, in spite of a mountain of international norms dictating how governments should care for children in custody, incarcerated girls are still targeted for abuse. I spent my time at the meeting attempting to garner support for an amendment, introduced by the Turkish delegation, aimed at recognizing the vulnerability of incarcerated girls. The language calls on governments to lock girls up only when absolutely necessary and to protect those incarcerated from abuse.

Girls confined in the U.S. face excessive use of force, verbal abuse—often sexual in nature—indifference to their grievances and excessive and demeaning security measures such as strip searches conducted so often that they begin to look less like a correctional necessity and more like state-sanctioned humiliation. Girls’ needs are neglected and they often receive fewer rehabilitative services than boys. The recent news of serious abuse and an official cover-up in juvenile prisons in Texas is just one in a steady drumbeat of such revelations all over the U.S.

The U.S. which touts itself as a leader on women’s rights, lags far behind in its treatment of women and girls who have contact with the criminal justice system (in addition, of course, to lagging in child care and other services that would help women participate equally in society). Lewis calls for several reforms that the U.S. and other countries can implement to protect the rights of girls in conflict with the law:

The Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974 (JJDPA) sets forth requirements for states seeking federal juvenile justice funds. In 1992, the JJDPA was amended to require states to identify gaps in services to girls, and the law’s reauthorization—scheduled for this year—provides Congress with an opportunity to strengthen the law by requiring better data-gathering and by making gender-based standards mandatory.

The Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), authored by the same man who wrote the infamous Department of Justice “torture memos,” prevents many adult and child prisoners from complaining about abuse by blocking their access to courts. Repealing the PLRA’s applicability to children, as the American Bar Association has urged, would improve girls’ chances of realizing their constitutional and human rights.

In the wake of the World Health Organization’s finding that domestic and sexual violence are global public health concerns, lawmakers are expected to introduce an International Violence Against Women Act (I-VAWA). The law would commit the U.S. to supporting international efforts to end violence against women in a variety of ways, including strengthening women’s economic independence.

Although the United States claims to champion women’s rights, it has refused to ratify the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), making it the only industrialized country to scorn what has been described as an international bill of rights for women. (During the CSW, the U.S. delegation moved to eliminate language in the Agreed Conclusions calling for the ratification of CEDAW and other agreements protecting women and girls.) The Senate Foreign Relations Committee should move CEDAW forward by voting to send the treaty to the full Senate for ratification.

It seems to me like the repeal of the PLRA is the most important action item on this list. While the ratification of CEDAW would be wonderful, my sense is that these treaties can, in U.S. hands, be more symbolic than powerful, even when fully ratified (take, for example, the Convention Against Torture). The PLRA, on the other hand, actively impedes the rights — and the ability to sue for those rights — of men and women, boys and girls in state corrections custody throughout the U.S., even when they are raped by prison guards or endure similarly awful and dehumanizing experiences.

As Lewis points out, there are tens, or even hundreds, of ways that the U.S. could better protect girls in the criminal justice system. It’s just that right now, there isn’t the political will to hold the government (and the state governments) accountable.


5 Comments so far
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this is a little tangential, but i just finished james baldwin’s “if beale street could talk – in which one of the main characters is wrongly imprisoned in 1950s new york – and it’s one of the scariest depictions of how prison transforms people. the day i finished the book, on my walk home from work, some plainclothes cops were busting a van full of folks on my street for what i assume to be petty drug offenses (and being real assholes about it).

and reading this post is just another sad reason why i’ve come to the place where I can’t imagine knowingly sending anyone into our prison system.

Comment by maxwell

Hm. I haven’t read that Baldwin book, but I will make a point to now.

And I am not the least bit surprised by the cops’ conduct. Because of course it makes sense to be the roughest with smalltime drug offenders.

Comment by bean

Though it wasn’t explicitly about young women, there was a very sad and illuminating story on NPR this weekend about child abuse of young people in juvenile facilities. I haven’t read the nytimes article yet, but I’m sure this is a major problem for increasing amounts of young women going into the system, especially if it’s being recognized as a widespread systemic problem in general. Scary..

On a completely different note, I”m so jealous of your adventures! I wanna hear all about it later – have fun!

Comment by milbydaniel

[…] – If you know Feministing, think of Bean’s A Bird and a Bottle as like Feministing, only fluffless, incisive, and massively underrated. As an added bonus, Bean is the only blogger I know who talks about the Abu Ghraib-style abuses occurring in domestic US prisons (recent highlight: girls in custody). […]

Pingback by I’m Now Officially an Ex-Blogger « Abstract Nonsense

[…] – If you know Feministing, think of Bean’s A Bird and a Bottle as like Feministing, only fluffless, incisive, and massively underrated. As an added bonus, Bean is the only blogger I know who talks about the Abu Ghraib-style abuses occurring in domestic US prisons (recent highlight: girls in custody). […]

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