For Their Own Good

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

To the adult jailors, though, it all comes down to a choice between the lesser of two evils: general population or segregation and isolation.

"They shouldn't be held in 23-hour lockdown," admits McKnight, "but unfortunately that's where we have to put them for their safety and for everyone else's safety. It's a trade-off that we are forced to make."

Peering through the glass wall in the jail's visitation area, a 16-year-old we'll call Diego is excited to see a visitor. It means he gets to try to have a conversation, or at least some version of one.

"It's hard to talk with people," says Diego, who has been in the county jail for the past six months, charged with aggravated robbery. "There's nothing to relate to. I'm in here by myself 23 hours a day."

He is happy, though, because at least he gets out of his cell.

"It's always the best part of my day," he says.

Like George, Diego says time drones on, blending into one seamless, never ending day. He is bored constantly. So bored, he says, that some days he can't even concentrate to read. Occasionally, he catches himself talking to himself out loud. At times he's thought he was hallucinating. Like many other teens in segregation, he'll beat on his cell door and try to start a riot, "sometimes because we didn't get our full hour out of our cell and sometimes because there's nothing else to do."

He says he can't wait to turn 17 and get placed in with other inmates, or get convicted and go to prison, just so he can escape the isolation.

"The worst thing is the pain of being alone in my cell 23 hours a day," he says. "This is the worst place I have ever been."

If only, he muses, he could go back to the juvenile detention facility, where he was held before being certified as an adult.

"I'm too young to be in here," he says. "It would be much better to have school all day and some therapy."

As it is, he says, he receives no counseling at all.

It's no secret that the adult criminal justice system is not geared toward rehabilitation, and when it comes to teens, numerous studies prove the point. According to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, part of the U.S. Department of Justice, "six large-scale studies" found higher recidivism rates among juveniles who had been transferred to the adult system, compared to those who remained in the juvenile system (see "For Their Own Good: A Chance at Rehabilitation").

A few state and federal lawmakers have taken notice and are attempting to change both the certification process and the way in which certified teens are held pretrial.

In Texas, Representative Sylvester Turner of Houston has introduced a bill that would require judges to specifically state the reasons for transferring a child to the adult court, ending the use of form orders.

In Congress, Senator Patrick Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, has introduced a change to the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act. The amendment states that in order for counties to receive funding through the federal justice program, they must detain all children in juvenile facilities, even if they've been certified. If and only if a judge determines after a hearing and in writing that the child is a risk to public safety, can the juvenile be held in adult jail.

In juvenile detention, according to Kendall Mayfield of the Harris County Probation Department, children receive seven hours a day of schooling, contact visits with their parents, therapy, and they get to socialize more normally with their peers.

When asked about the possible solution of holding certified youths in the juvenile facility, Legg refused to discuss hypothetical situations because "as the sheriff has said in response to other similar types of questions, 'it really doesn't matter what I feel; it wouldn't change the reality of the situation right now.'"

Harvey Hetzel, head of the Harris County Juvenile Probation Department, however, says his facility has enough beds to house certified youths.

"I didn't realize they were being put in isolation," he says, "and I certainly don't think that's appropriate. We could better deal with them, but it's a different population than what we have, so we'd have to gear up for it."

It all boils down to where the county spends its money and political will.

When asked if he would support additional resources for Hetzel to house certified juveniles, County Judge Ed Emmett declined to comment. His spokesman, Joe Stinebaker, says Emmett did not know that certified juveniles were held pretrial in isolation most of the time and does not want to talk about a situation he knows little about.

Aside from a lack of awareness on the issue, says McKnight, "the average person wants the county to spend money on more officers, not more cells. They want the [inmate] in or under the jail, fed bread and water, and that's it."

Unfortunately, for many people, it's an all or nothing mentality when it comes to criminal justice.

"You're either in favor of locking up everybody and everything and are 'hard on crime,'" Dvoskin says, "or you're a yellow-bellied coward who wants to let these guys rape everybody's daughter. But nobody gets elected saying, 'Let's use some common sense.' This is a very complex issue. We have to ask ourselves, 'Do we want to give up on these kids?' And if so, how hard a decision should that be?"

In the meantime, kids such as George sit alone in their cells, waiting for their day in court, taking refuge the only place they can: in their dreams.

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