For Their Own Good

Harris County juveniles certified as adults are jailed in isolation 23 hours a day — without being convicted of a crime.

Recreation time at the adult jail, says George, is a joke. Twice a week he gets an hour and a half to exercise and play, but it's always indoors. There are basketballs, but no hoop. Volleyballs, but no net. Not that it would matter. George says he's often kept in shackles, so all he and his fellow teens can do is shoot the shit. Then it's back into his cell.

Harris County is by no means alone when it comes to housing certified teens in isolation. Ryan says that 40 states permit or require that juveniles certified as adults be held before trial in an adult jail, and that on any given day 7,500 youths are incarcerated in adult jails across the country.

In one example, two youths placed in isolation tried to kill themselves seven years ago in the Los Angeles County jail. The incidents made headlines in the Los Angeles Times and public outcry began to grow. Finally, the L.A. County Sheriff decided to contract for beds in a nearby state juvenile facility. There, the youths receive all-day schooling five days a week, can socialize with each other and receive counseling.

"Solitary confinement is really damaging," says Sue Burrell, a lawyer with the Youth Law Center in San Francisco, an advocacy group involved in the L.A. County case, "but for young people it's much worse. As we all know, a child's brain is still developing, they are still developing emotionally and they have a much different perception of time. Five minutes can feel like five hours. So being forced to sit in a cell away from their family, their friends, with sensory deprivation, is incredibly damaging to their mental health. Our experience has been they either get really depressed or they get really angry. And sometimes they flip-flop between the two."

Bobby says that's exactly what happened to him.

"Being with people helps you keep your mind off a lot of different things," he says. "If you're just sitting there, you go crazy. And yes, you get out of your cell for 30 or 60 minutes a day, but when you do you'll probably do something you don't want to do. You want to cause a problem."

Today, says Burrell, the majority of certified youths held pretrial in California are kept in juvenile facilities.

Juvenile justice advocates in Texas are aware that certified youths are held pretrial in isolation inside county jails throughout the state, but so far have done little to try to stop it.

Will Harrell, Ombudsman for the Texas Youth Commission, says he is "deeply concerned" about the practice, but that he has no jurisdiction over the adult system, therefore his hands are tied. Isela Gutierrez of the Juvenile Justice Initiative in Austin says she doesn't have a good answer as to why this issue has slipped under the radar.

"It's a good question," she says. "The kids being certified are primarily kids of color so I think that could be a reason why people are not paying attention. Maybe there's a willingness to accept that these are really hard-core criminals who are beyond rehabilitation. The truth is, juvenile justice was off everyone's radar for a really long time, but now more attention is being paid to what we're doing with our kids and we're asking, is it working?"

Christene Wood couldn't believe her own eyes. She'd been a civil lawyer for several years, but sitting there in Harris County juvenile judge Pat Shelton's courtroom during a certification hearing was like nothing she'd ever experienced.

"Shelton was surfing the Internet and never made eye contact with the boy," she says. "He covered his mouth and laughed during my closing argument. It was the most shocking and appalling proceeding I've ever seen as a lawyer in my career."

Wood was representing Christian — whose name has been changed because of his age and for fear of retribution by jail staff — the 16-year-old friend of Wood's daughter. He is currently awaiting trial in the Harris County jail, charged with murder. According to court records, eyewitnesses stated that Christian was being assaulted in a car during a marijuana buy when a gun went off, killing another boy. A third youth admitted to being the shooter and gunshot residue was found on his hands, but he later recanted. When police interviewed Christian, he admitted to the shooting, though his lawyers claim gunshot residue tests on him were negative and he was never Mirandized.

The factual allegations of the criminal case, however, are not the only elements a judge must consider when deciding whether to certify a juvenile and transfer him to adult court. The Texas Family Code requires that a judge must also weigh the sophistication and maturity of the child, the previous history of the child, the protection of the public and the likelihood of rehabilitation.

During Christian's hearing, the prosecutor called one witness: a detective who recounted the alleged facts unearthed during the investigation. The assistant district attorney never presented evidence relating to the other criteria, according to the transcript of the proceeding.

On the other hand, Christian's defense team did. Christian's juvenile probation officer testified that Christian had neither attendance nor behavioral issues at school, and juvenile corrections officer Ulysses Galloway told the court that Christian was "one of the best kids I have seen come through as far as his intelligence and obedience and the way he carries himself in the facility." When asked if he believed Christian would be amenable to treatment, Galloway said, "Yes, I would."

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