Just outside the town of Ponce, on Puerto Rico’s southern coast, is a prison for girls. Although the place is named “Center for Detention and Treatment” (Centro de Detención y Tratamiento Social), little by way of “treatment” goes on there. Instead, the Ponce facility looks, feels, and functions in many ways like an adult prison. The buildings are topped with coils of razor wire. The girls wear prison uniforms and sleep on thin mattresses over beds of cement. While most of the workers wear civilian clothes, there is a uniformed corps of enforcers, called “custody staff.” These heavies carry pepper spray and metal handcuffs, and are called in to get physical if a child misbehaves. Children’s contact with their families is severely limited, and a sign in the visiting room declares: “Kisses, caresses, or any demonstration of affection that could attract the attention of those present are forbidden.” (“No se permiten besos, caricias o cualquier demostración de afecta que pueda atraer la atención de los presentes”).
When an ACLU investigative team went into the Ponce youth prison, we witnessed and heard girls’ reports about an array of troubling conditions. One of the most striking is how girls confined in Ponce are treated when they commit self-harm, such as cutting the skin of their arms. Self-injury is common among adolescents, especially those coping with painful emotions, and it poses no threat to other people. Yet, girls in Ponce who harm themselves are stripped of their clothes, given only a thin paper gown to wear, and put in a bare and extremely cold solitary confinement cell. Each time a girl harms herself her imprisonment is lengthened by six months. In other words, instead of giving the girls the care and treatment they need, Puerto Rican authorities respond to self-harm by piling on more punishment.
Months ago, we sought information from Puerto Rican authorities about conditions in the Ponce facility, including the treatment of children who injure themselves. Both the United States and Puerto Rico Constitutions require the government to respond to such requests for public information. To date, the government has ignored the law and refused to break the secrecy surrounding the treatment of girls in Ponce. Sadly, this is not the first time law enforcement in Puerto Rico has caught our attention.
Today, we filed suit, asking a court to compel Puerto Rico to turn over its records. Government transparency is a prerequisite to good policy. As a civil liberties organization, and a champion of the First Amendment, we at the ACLU defend the right of people to know what their government is doing, especially when government actions threaten individual rights. As the Women’s Rights Project of the ACLU, we also care deeply about the treatment of girls in the juvenile justice system. Reforming Puerto Rico’s policies with regard to incarcerated children will no doubt be a long road, and for the government to tell the public exactly what it is doing, and why, must be the first step.