By Richard Ross
Standing in rooms where people were tortured is a visceral experience. Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. The discussion then, 10 years past, was the fluid continuum–from discussion, interview, interrogation, then finally, torture. The terms were sometimes twisted—“enhanced interrogation”—but our descending from who we were to what we had become was unmistakable and chilling in these spaces of torture. This was the post-9/11 world of adults and terrorism.
Now I am working in environments where children are held in unimaginable conditions but the blood on the wall and the damage done to others and ourselves remains.
There is a similar continuum running from courage to cowardice. “Justice delayed is justice denied” has been an important tenant in the administration of justice. The status quo is nothing more than a convenience.
In Miami I met Ronald Franklin, who was incarcerated at age 13 for four and half years without adjudication.
“Often the defense uses continuances as a tactic to hope witnesses forget or move away” offered the detention center head in Miami-Dade.
“We had three different state attorneys and there were four co-defendants, so getting everyone into the same room at the right time was difficult,” said one of the assistant public defenders on the case.
Yet Ronald sat in a cell for four and half years. Of course he couldn’t afford bail, so he languished. Sometimes he was in his cell, sometimes out with a group, and other times he would be in total isolation. And of course everyone in the unit he was in was black. Do I even have to bother saying this? You already know this. You see the faces. They are black and they are brown. Our criminal justice system consumes them.
David McKune was the head of the Johnson County Juvenile Detention Center in Kansas until December of this past year. He was also the former director of the Lansing Correctional Facility, which has an adult population of about 2,500.
He recently wrote me: “We have eliminated locked isolation for juveniles for discipline or punishment. I am so glad it was accomplished while I was here; isolation as punishment (indeed punishment in general as a behavior change tool) is deeply ingrained in the culture of many institutions and facilities.”
Many facilities, when asked for access to visit and conduct interviews with the kids or adults, will often respond, “It is not our policy to permit such visits.” Sometimes they give reasons; “We are protecting the privacy of our inmates.” Or, “We don’t have the staff.” Often, they’ll drag out such a request with “We will consider your request. We will get back with you.” Requests can be repeated over and over for weeks, months, years.
Sometimes, administrators such as Tom Brooks of Harris County, Texas open the doors and exclaim, “We want you to see the good, the bad and the ugly! That’s the only way we can get a candid look at what’s going on and improve the outcome for these kids.”
Delay is the hand-maiden of the status quo, and the status quo is no longer acceptable. It is destroying children, destroying people, destroying families and destroying us as a society. We are at a critical juncture that demands sensibility, sensitivity and change. There are people of vision in hundreds of institutions who have been willing to open their doors and be part of a discussion.
This is the year others must open their doors towards a more transparent world. We don’t eliminate the blood on the walls where a child has beaten her head against the concrete by asking to not have the images published. Rather a child has to be given the necessary help to prevent her or him from being in this room at all. We can and must do better. To quote Dan Rather, “courage” is demanded. To do less, to keep these kids locked in isolation, beating their heads against a blood wall is cowardice.