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17…and in Solitary

Amy Cannata,
ACLU of Montana
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December 29, 2009

As a young child, “Robert Doe” suffered at the hands of an abusive father who beat him with belts and clothes hangers and encouraged his siblings to beat him with baseball bats. Robert was often locked in a room for days or weeks on end. Alone. As a direct consequence of his abusive upbringing, Robert, now 17, suffers from mental illness, and the state that should be helping him has chosen to torture him instead.

Robert’s childhood was marked by instability. He was placed with various relatives, foster care and institutional facilities while growing up before being placed in Pine Hills Youth Correctional Facility. While there, an altercation with two correctional officers led to Robert being convicted of assault. Rather than treat the root causes of his actions, the state simply gave up on him, and threw him into Montana State Prison, an adult facility. Deprived of his medication, he acted out and was confined to solitary confinement where he has remained for the past eight months, reliving the confinement of his earlier childhood.

As well as being forced to endure prolonged solitary confinement, Robert has been pepper sprayed, Tasered and stripped naked in full view of other inmates. As punishment for acting out in solitary, Robert was put into the prison’s “behavior modification plans” where he has been denied clothing, given only bread and water and has had just a hole in the floor to use for a toilet.

In complete despair, Robert has twice tried to kill himself by biting his wrist to puncture a vein. Other inmates were so concerned that they contacted us to get help for Robert, not themselves.

The ACLU of Montana and the ACLU’s Human Rights Program are suing to get Robert out of adult prison and into appropriate mental health treatment. State and international human rights standards demand no less. The lawsuit charges that Robert’s treatment violates not only the Montana constitution and other state laws, but is also in violation of Robert’s universally recognized human rights. Among other things, these rights prohibit torture and other forms of ill-treatment and require that state officials make every effort to ensure the rehabilitation of child prisoners. U.N. Standard Minimum Rules for the Administration of Juvenile Justice, for example, require that children such as Robert be are treated with dignity and respect and that rehabilitation, not punishment, be are the central goal of their imprisonment. The U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, an international treaty, also calls for the humane treatment of juvenile prisoners. Unfortunately, the U.S. currently stands with Somalia as one of only two countries that has yet to ratify that treaty.

As the New York Times recently highlighted, Robert’s case is not isolated; rather, it is a stark example of an all too common practice in the United States of treating child prisoners as adults. No one, especially a child, should be subjected to the kind of abuse Robert has been. Montana law and international human rights law require a fundamentally different approach, one where the state authorities act in Robert’s best interests to treat his illness, and not punish him for it.

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