Incarcerated Girls "Testify" at U.S. Social Forum

June 28, 2007

On June 28, five girls currently held in juvenile prisons "testified" before a Court of Women convened as part of the U.S. Social Forum in Atlanta, Georgia. Although the girls' confinement prevented them from personally attending the event, digital audio recordings of the girls' testimony was presented to the Court by Women's Rights Project attorney Mie Lewis, who has conducted in-depth interviews with dozens of incarcerated girls in several states.

The girls were confined for offenses ranging from probation violations, to theft, to murder. Their testimonies, aired publicly for the first time ever, poignantly describe harsh childhoods in abandoned communities, as well as abuse, neglect, and inequality in state custody. The girls' stories are representative of the experiences of the approximately 15,000 girls and young women in juvenile prisons across the United States.

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AUDIO
When communities are abandoned, the children within them suffer the most, and frequently fall into the juvenile justice system. "Anna" (not her real name) was beaten by her mother and raped by her elder brother from early childhood. When Anna was 15, she was impregnated by her brother and secretly gave birth to the child in her room. Anna's account of the events leading to her incarceration for murder raise troubling questions: What if there had been a teacher or a counselor in whom Anna could confide about her abuse or her pregnancy? What made her mother and brother act as they did, and what interventions should have occurred, but didn't?
Once incarcerated, girls continue to suffer abuse. Institutionalized violence frequently takes the form of the excessive use of force. International human rights standard ban the use of force against confined children except as a last resort when the child poses an imminent threat to herself or others, and after all other possible interventions have failed. Instead, facilities staff frequently abuse their power by using force when it is not needed, using too much force, and even using force vindictively. The experiences of "Carla" and "Beth" are typical of children in lockups.
Sexual abuse by facilities staff spans a gamut from flirting and sexual talk, to unwanted touching, to intercourse with incarcerated girls. Sexual abuse can also include the excessive or retaliatory use of strip searches. "Beth" testifies that officials ignore or inadequately investigate girls' complaints when staff "sexually act out with girls."
Unlike adult prisons, juvenile facilities have a legal duty to rehabilitate delinquent children, rather than just punishing them. In reality, juvenile facilities often look and feel much like prisons. Girls in custody often report that they are denied the counseling services they need to address past abuse, mental illness, and substance dependency. "Lisa" describes a home environment saturated with drugs.
Although education lies at the heart of rehabilitation and is essential to children's ability to survive when they are released from juvenile prisons, the schooling provided to incarcerated children is often inadequate. One common problem is the assignment of children of widely varying ages and levels of academic aptitude to a single classroom. As "Monica" describes in her testimony, classroom instruction is rare to nonexistent in many facilities schools. "Monica" longs for the vital human interaction present in schools "out there in the free world."
Incarcerated girls often suffer particular harms. "Beth" describes how she must effectively serve a longer sentence because there is not enough room in a girls' halfway house called "Willoughby."

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PHOTOS
ACLU Women's Rights Project Attorney Mie Lewis interviews a girl in a juvenile prison
Girls' shoes line the hallway of a typical cell block. Although juvenile facilities are legally required to rehabilitate children, the emphasis is often instead on punishment.
A solitary confinement cell used to hold girls for as long as three months at a time. Holding children in solitary confinement violates international human rights norms and causes severe psychological damage to children.

LEARN MORE
> Abuses Against Girls in Custody in New York
> Recent Documentation of Abuses Against Girls in Texas
> ACLU Blueprint for Meeting the Needs of Girls in TYC Custody
> The ACLU and Women's Rights

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