It could not be more ironic that one of the buildings that contains the holding cells of the Brownwood State School – a high-security youth prison in central Texas — is called “Freedom Dorm.” Approximately 150 girls are currently incarcerated at Brownwood; nationwide, more than 14,000 girls are in prison on any given night. When you think of “juvenile detention centers” you might imagine something like a boarding school, but in fact, many facilities look much like adult prisons.
Girls are restrained with brutal physical force and are regularly locked up in solitary confinement — a punishment used for minor misbehaviors as well as for girls who express wanting to hurt themselves.
"If we don’t agree to get on the floor… they come in with the shield, they ram you against the wall, and then they throw you on the floor. I got my chin busted open — I had to get four stitches and I got my tooth chipped."Especially given that almost every one of these girls has suffered multiple traumas — including sexual abuse, physical abuse, drug addiction, mental illness, poverty, and violence — it is shocking how the very system that professes to rehabilitate them utterly fails to provide them with treatment or education, and instead re-traumatizes them.
— 16-year-old girl incarcerated at Brownwood
"The SA system is not at all what you would call protective toward an SA person. It stands for ‘suicide alert,’ but staff make fun of it and call it ‘stupid alert’ or ‘seeking attention alert,’ because they think that when we cut ourselves or when we try to commit suicide that we’re seeking attention even though we’re going through hard times."The girls incarcerated at Brownwood receive virtually no professional counseling and are seen infrequently by psychiatrists, who often do no more than prescribe dangerous combinations of psychotropic drugs in high dosages. At Brownwood, some of the girls are seen by a “telecom” psychiatrist who conducts appointments via teleconference. As one girl put it, “How can you trust someone you can only see on TV?” Not receiving proper treatment and left alone with their emotions, many girls are driven to cut themselves, bang their heads against the concrete walls, and attempt suicide.— 16-year-old girl incarcerated at Brownwood
The response to these behaviors is physical restraint, pepper spray, and further solitary confinement.
In the hopes of bringing to light this broken system and changing these inhumane practices, five of the girls at the Brownwood prison, with the help of the ACLU, filed a lawsuit on Thursday against the Texas Youth Commission, which operates all youth prisons in Texas. The lawsuit charges that TYC subjects the girls to unwarranted solitary confinement, routine strip searches and brutal physical force. The filing coincided with the Annie E. Casey Foundation's release of its 2008 KIDS COUNT Data Book, which features an essay on the need to reform the juvenile justice system in the U.S.
For more information on the ACLU's work on girls in youth prisons, including excerpts of interviews with the girls held in the Brownwood facility, check out: