For Their Own Good

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

The fact that the youths are held in isolation does not enter the minds of prosecutors when deciding whether to seek certification, says Moore.

"Would I love it if the state and county had the money and resources to really take care of these kids and really try to get them so they can come back into society?" he says. "Heck yes. But we seek to certify the ones we get a sense from the juvenile probation people are beyond rehabilitation. Are we right all the time? Who knows, but as prosecutors we really have to be concerned with protecting people from these kids getting back out and committing another robbery or murder."

Using Christian's hearing as an example, Moore's rationale appears flawed. Christian's juvenile probation officer testified that Christian was in fact responsive to rehabilitation and Moore's language assumes that a child is guilty. By placing Christian and others in the jail and subsequently in isolation to await trial, argues John Vernon, an attorney with Appleseed, "the judge has essentially convicted and punished" them, "potentially causing irreparable harm."

Also at issue in Christian's court petition is the fact that after a child is certified, he cannot appeal the decision until the criminal trial is over. According to Carnegie, this means "you may have a child, who is wrongfully certified, end up in adult prison for a long time awaiting trial and they can't appeal the certification for months or even years."

Harris County attorneys responded, arguing simply that a right to appeal exists; the fact that it might take years is irrelevant.
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When it comes to keeping teens locked up in isolation, jail administrators don't like it any better than the kids themselves.

"It's a Catch-22," says Liz Ryan of Youth Justice. "They don't want the kid in isolation and they don't want the kid in general population. They know it's not safe either way."

Dennis McKnight used to run the adult jail in Bexar County, where he felt forced to keep certified juveniles in their own cells alone 23 hours a day. Not that he really wanted to.

"If I had my absolute druthers," he says, "they'd be housed in a juvenile facility or a special facility just for them. It creates tremendous burdens on the local detention centers. Lots of kids have mental or emotional issues and it adds a layer of stuff we have to deal with that we're not set up to deal with."

He likens a county jail to a garbage Dumpster. Jail administrators don't get to pick and choose what gets tossed in, but they have to make room for whatever comes their way.

Harris County sheriff's spokesman Lieutenant John Legg says the jail does not make special accommodations for juveniles.

"They're treated like any other inmate," he says.

Except for one glaring difference: isolation.

One reason for this, says Legg, "is for their own safety." He says several years ago, teens were allowed into common areas with each other during the day, but they would fight and steal each other's commissary items, so jail officials decided to keep them in their cells for a majority of the time. A choice, says Legg, "which has had the desired result."

While the violence may be down, isolation has not eliminated it, if you listen to the kids themselves. All of the juveniles that the Houston Press interviewed who are currently in the jail say they or their fellow teens sneak out of their cells from time to time by placing toilet paper in their cells' door locks, making it appear to the guards that the doors are shut, when in fact they are open. The kids say they do this to get out of their cells and fight each other.

This doesn't surprise McKnight. He acknowledges what psychologists say, which is that isolation can make young inmates feel the need to act out.

"They're already under a lot of stress because they are in jail charged with a pretty heavy offense," he says. "And then shoving them in isolation, that doesn't help any. That makes it much more stressful and increases your suicide and violence risk. They might just flare up at any moment because they're pent up with all that anxiety and something's gotta blow."

According to the sheriff's office, the teens are allowed out of their cells 20 hours a week, including recreation time and schooling. The kids themselves, however, told the Press that they receive somewhere between two and four hours a week of classes and that they don't always get a full three hours of recreation time.

Still, 20 hours a week outside of their cells means the teens spend nearly 90 percent of their time locked up alone.

Legg, though, doesn't quite see it that way.

"Out of a 24-hour day," he says, "I think it would be safe to take at least eight hours of that time out because they are sleeping. So they're not really locked down, so to speak, for 23 hours."

Sue Burrell says that line of thinking is "garbage. However you slice it, it means that kids are out of their room for [approximately] one hour a day...and they are defending that practice? Unbelievable."

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