Private prisons that fight to lock up America’s children

Mar 12, 2009
Harry Underwood

Juvenile detention centres in the US have even bribed judges to imprison young offenders

Every year, 2 million young people are arrested in the United States, and half-a-million spend time in detention centres. In Pennsylvania, two judges thought they could make some money out of this repulsively strict juvenile justice system. Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan received more than $2.6m in bribes for sentencing children to time in privately-run juvenile detention centres. Now they're spending the next seven years in jail themselves.

In one case, 15-year-old Hillary Transue was sent to a detention centre for making a fake MySpace page which belittled the deputy headmaster at her school. In another, 14-year-old Phillip Swartley was packed off to reformatory school for petty theft.  It wasn't easy. "Sometimes they'd have you standing there for hours with the staff yelling in your face. They expect you not to make any facial expressions, not to look away or look down", Swartley recounted.

"Once he got released home", his mother said, "every time I'd try to get him to go to school he'd curl up in a ball and become physically sick."

Jamie Bryk was sent to court after she got into a fist fight with another girl after an argument over a boy at a bowling alley. It was her first offence, and her parents assumed that she'd get a slap on the wrists, so they didn't think they'd need an attorney. As it was, the hearing with Ciavarella lasted all of 60 seconds, and Jamie left in handcuffs.

She was locked up for 10 months in total at a detention centre. Then, whilst at an institution run by Vision Quest, her mother says Jamie learnt to self-harm: "Prior to her cutting herself she told me of how kids there were cutting themselves and then, lo and behold, she started cutting herself."

Detention centres are promoted as part summer camp, part motivational seminar

The places these kids were sent to are all privately-run. So like any other business, they have to make money. Generally, this means they recruit cheap, inexperienced, and hastily-trained staff, and, by monitoring the inmates with state-of-the-art CCTV systems and getting architects to design buildings that reduce the need for wardens, keep the number of people that they have to pay to a minimum.

The push for profit also means, as it would in a hotel, filling beds, which is where Ciavarella and Conahan, the two disgraced judges, had the chance to earn their money.

And to get business, private prisons have to promote themselves to the judges, probation departments, defence attorneys and social workers who decide where to place the children. The very idea may seem distasteful, but the Mid-Atlantic Youth Services Corp (MAYS), the parent company of two institutions involved in the Pennsylvanian scandal, has a website which promotes it as a cross between summer camp and a motivational seminar.

The photo of the smiling young girl on its homepage looks more like an advertisement for toothpaste than for prison; the whole website is drowning in schmaltz.

This means mission statements: "Long or short, all roads to recovery start with a single, life altering step. Let us lead the way", fatuous statements: "Our environment provides residents with a high degree of structure, utilizing clearly defined norms and expectations and logical consequences", and testimonials from happy discharged 'customers': "No staff member could have said it better than Mr Gallagher who said 'if you are man enough to get yourself in placement, be man enough to get yourself out'."

The idea seems to be to market MAYS as a jolly boarding school. So it's only too easy to forget that this is a firm which takes kids as young as 12, with IQs as low as 60, which is the boundary between 'mild' and 'moderate' mental retardation, and locks them up. And to forget that the two corrupt judges sent thousands of children there for such petty offenses as stealing a $4 jar of nutmeg.

In Britain, our privately-run prisons don't yet promote themselves with quite the silky management-speak of their American cousins. Nor has there yet been a scandal of the sort seen in Pennsylvania.

But that's not to say that all is well in our private prisons. Last year, there were calls for Oakhill secure training centre, a child prison run by G4S in Milton Keynes, to be shut down after a report on the "staggering levels of use of force by staff". In one nine month period, the highest level of restraint, "requiring at least three members of staff, with one holding the child's head", was employed 532 times.

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