Lost in teenage jail

So young, so vicious, so frail

Posted: January 29, 2018 at 1 a.m.

BACK in the fall, Arkansas’ Newspaper mentioned that it costs taxpayers—that is, We the People—$87,000 a year, or about $238 a day, to incarcerate each juvenile delinquent in its care. That’s a lot more than it costs the state to bunk an adult.

And that’s no surprise. Juvee hall needs teachers and tutors and vocational training and GED prep and small classes and a host of other requirements. A teenage jail isn’t prison, or shouldn’t be. Because all of these kids—every one of them, no matter the charge—will get out one day. (The teens who are convicted of the serious stuff can be charged as adults and sent to the big house.)

When it comes to juveniles in Arkansas’ correctional system, we can’t afford to just put them in a box and poke them with sticks. An attempt should be made—several attempts should be made—to rehab these young people before they’re put back on the street, maybe in your neighborhood.

But over the years reports have trickled out, or poured out, showing disturbing details in our juvenile jails. Was it just last year that we found out that many of the kids in Arkansas’ prison system were there for only truancy? And hadn’t committed a violent crime of any sort. But were placed next to kids who had. Call that a recipe for disaster: bunking kids who missed curfew next to accused armed robbers. Juvenile jail is supposed to offer an education, but we get the feeling that’s not the kind anybody had in mind.

Now comes another report issued this past week by the Disability Rights Arkansas group. That outfit is an advocacy organization but it operates under federal authority, so it has weight. Weight enough to walk into youth facilities run by the state and take pictures.

Inspectors with the group found that some teens in state custody have spent several weeks confined in unheated dorm rooms, on freezing nights yet, showering in mold-infested stalls and living with a shortage of supplies such as coats and shampoo.

“Due to the dire conditions and circumstances at the facilities, the neglect rises to a level of abuse,” an attorney for the group reported.

The group found even more disturbing things at one facility in Dermott: Appliances in the kitchen were unusable, dirty, or downright dangerous. Apparently the fryer in the kitchen would switch on and off on its own. Which might be the definition of a fire hazard. And with all those locked doors and windows, the definition of a tragedy in the making.

A spokesman for the state says some of the problems have been fixed already. And new equipment ordered. We trust the fryer was first on the list.

The problem—or one of the problems—with what’s going on in the state’s juvenile lockups may be residue from when the jails were run by private companies. It’s been about a year now since the public found out that conditions at six of the seven youth jails in the state were deteriorating fast. And teens were living in squalid conditions and didn’t have adequate schooling. The state Human Services Department is now running the several shows, and can hardly be blamed for having to play catchup.

But if the catching-up doesn t happen fast enough, the next step is the courtroom. So says the aforementioned attorney for Disability Rights Arkansas:

“We need to take a step back and think: what are our next options here?” said Thomas Nichols. “We can just keep issuing these letters, watch them fall in a black hole—or we can do something different.”

Consider that a warning. To all of us.

ANYBODY who’s worked with juveniles behind bars knows it ain’t easy. These are troubled kids. And some of them you wouldn’t want to meet on the street. But we must emphasize: They will get out one day.

When you see them on the street, and you might, do you want them seeking revenge on society, angered by their experiences while in state custody? Or would you rather take your chances with a young person who might have a GED, a job, and maybe even some thought of the future?

It’s costing us hundreds of dollars a day to take care of each of these kids. It’s expensive and important.

Let’s get this right. For their sake. And ours.