There’s no shortage of tragic stories about the dangers of holding children and teens in adult jails.
The Southern Poverty Law Center recently filed a lawsuit in Florida that described horrendous abuse at the Polk County Jail – an adult jail where children as young as 8 years old can be detained.
Children were sprayed with chemical restraints for minor infractions such as taking too long to get dressed. They were put in a small cage for punishment. One guard twisted a teenager’s arm behind his back and threatened to break it.
At the Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility in Mississippi, teenagers convicted as adults were subjected to brutal beatings and sexual exploitation. Our lawsuit also described how staffers peddled drugs to youth in their custody and failed to protect them from brutal violence—including rapes and physical assaults.
The SPLC has worked with organizations like the Campaign for Youth Justice, which has brought national attention to the dangers of holding children and teens in adult jails. As a result, several states have taken measures to ensure that youths are placed in facilities governed by the juvenile justice standards designed to protect the unique needs of children.
Unfortunately, some states, including Florida, continue to engage in the practice of placing children in adult prisons, and other Florida counties may soon follow Polk County’s tragic example. This problem continues to be widespread, and the SPLC has offices across the Southeast working to end the dangerous practice.
There is little doubt the tragedies we’ve seen in the Southeast play out in adult prisons across the nation. As The New York Times noted in a recent editorial, a U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics 2005 report found that 21 percent of the sexual violence in such facilities is against youths, even though they make up only 1 percent of all jail and prison inmates.
We need reform at the federal level to bring the sweeping change so many children desperately need. As the Times pointed out, if the U.S. Department of Justice releases its proposed rape-prevention policies for federal prisons and state correctional facilities receiving federal money, the policy should undoubtedly include a call to end the barbaric practice of placing children in adult jails and prisons.
The SPLC is encouraged that members of Congress are urging the Department of Justice to address this issue. We’re proud to report that we reached a settlement agreement in Mississippi that will place the youth at Walnut Grove in a facility governed by juvenile justice standards designed to protect them from abuse and mitigate the harms of adult facilities.
And we remain committed to fighting for the removal of children from the adult jail in Polk County and elsewhere. We hope that the Department of Justice will join the effort to end this practice. Quite simply, children do not belong in adult prisons.