New York Teens Often Isolated in Adult Prisons

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NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)–Anjelique Wadlington had been arrested before, for fighting. But this time it was different. After she got arrested for drug possession at the age of 17, she was in for a major shock.

“I thought that I was going to be released to my parents again,” Wadlington, now 29, said in a phone interview, “but with the quantity of drugs, they told me I wasn’t going home so I broke down. I really just wanted to go home.”

Instead of going home, Wadlington spent the next two years in jail; adult jail.

“In the beginning I would stay asleep,” she said, describing her initial sense of depression. “I wouldn’t talk to anybody. I would just read a lot because they had some books. I would get my mind out of being in jail through reading, so I could imagine things.”

New York and North Carolina are the only two states in the country that prosecute all 16- and 17-year-olds in the justice system as adults, which means some wind up in adult prisons.

With a growing number of teens being diverted to alternative programs, the numbers of girls who end up in adult prisons are low. In 2014, only 77 females in New York’s prisons were between the ages of 16 and 20, just over 3 percent of the female inmate population, according to The New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision.

And there are typically only a handful of 16- and 17-year-olds in New York’s jails–facilities that hold prisoners for a year or less. For example, there’s just one girl in Suffolk County’s jail system, said Kristin MacKay, director of public relations for the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Office in Riverhead, N.Y., in a phone interview.

Those low numbers mean that the few teens who still wind up behind bars in adult prisons are increasingly isolated.

“In order to ‘protect’ girls, they are put into isolation, but it ends up causing a lot of harm,” said Marcy Mistrett, CEO of the advocacy group Campaign for Youth Justice, based in Washington, D.C.

Inmates 17 years old or younger are required to be separated from older prisoners in order to protect them from sexual assault by the federal 2003 Prison Rape Elimination Act, though adults and teens still encounter one another in programs and recreational activities.

But the population of 16- and 17-year-olds in New York prisons is so small that this protective policy can actually expose young women to solitary confinement.

Solitary confinement is psychologically damaging, particularly to teens, who can experience anxiety, rage, self-harm and suicidal thoughts while isolated, the American Civil Liberties Union reports. And for women and female teens, solitary confinement can exacerbate mental illness and re-traumatize abuse victims.

Wadlington, at one point in her confinement, was in 21-hour lockup that kept her separate from adult inmates for most of the day.

‘No Benefits’

“There are no benefits to putting kids in adult prisons,” said Serena Ligouri, associate director of Herstory Writers Workshop, a program for incarcerated female teens and women in Centereach, N.Y.

When teens who’ve been incarcerated grow to adulthood they are twice as likely to re-offend with a violent offense and 26 percent more likely to go back to prison, found a 2007 study that compared 15- and 16-year-olds charged in New York’s adult courts with those charged with identical crimes in New Jersey’s juvenile courts. Teens in adult prisons are also 36 times more likely to commit suicide than those in juvenile facilities.

The punishment is often excessive, given the nonviolent offenses usually committed. Like Wadlington, most young women who are in jail are in for drug charges, said MacKay, of the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Office. “Especially the 16- and 17-year-olds,” she said.

In 2014, out of 30,286 arrests of 16- and 17-year-olds across New York State, just 1,978 were for violent offenses. The rest were non-violent felonies and misdemeanors.

Among the problems that Wadlington faced in adult prison was that of completing her education. At the time of her arrest she had been taking pre-college courses and preparing for her general educational development degree, or GED. But adult prisons are not like the juvenile justice system, which often provides more qualified teachers and the chance for teens to transfer credits to their home schools.

“The educational system in juvenile facilities is set up to recognize these kids are going back,” said Mistrett, of the Campaign for Youth Justice. “But adult prisons don’t connect back to the continuing educational needs of youth. For example, instead of a days’ worth of classes, they might get ‘cell study’ for an hour. It’s very minimal.”

At the Suffolk County Correctional Facility in Riverhead, N.Y., Wadlington studied for her degree four times a week for two hours a day. When she was transferred to another prison upstate she said authorities there had no records of her GED work. “So I went to school for two months, three times a week. Finally it was verified that I completed my GED.”

Inmates at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility and Albion Correctional Facility–two prisons for women in New York–are often waitlisted for GED programs because there aren’t enough teachers, according to the Correctional Association, with even longer waitlists for vocational programs.

Different Needs, Wants

Female teens in jail and prison have different wants and needs from older women; from mental health services to what television program inmates will watch.

Wadlington was imprisoned at age 17 and age 18, which meant that as an 18-year-old she was confined with adults.

“I would be up by 8 every morning because at that time they had the music channel,” Wadlington said.” I would have the music on for at least two hours before the adults would complain about it.”

Adolescents are on a different developmental level and don’t have the same ability to problem solve as adults do, Mykel Selph, director of the Office of Girls and Gender at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center in Chicago, said in a phone interview. And for female teens in particular, “They often think the older women look down on them.”

“With the other teens, I was OK with one of them,” Wadlington said. “I was friends with the girl that was my age. But the rest of them, because I had already been in there for about three months, my mentality had already changed. And to me, they seemed very immature, so I had to stay away from them because they started a lot of trouble.”

Women who end up in jail and prison have higher rates of trauma and mental illness. A report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that 73 percent of women in state prisons are mentally ill, compared with 55 percent of men. Women in prison are twice as likely as the general public to report a history of sexual abuse, and 90 percent of women in Bedford Hills Correctional Facility reported having experienced physical or sexual violence, finds the Correctional Association.

Mental health programs are essential to help women and female teens, but experts say the programs handled in adult prisons are inadequate to deal with adolescents.

“Staff in adult prisons are not trained to deal with adolescent mental health,” Campaign for Youth Justice’s Mistrett said. “The adult justice system isn’t contextualized toward reforming but rather toward implementing punitive measures.”

Selph, of Chicago’s Office of Girls and Gender at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center, notes that juvenile facilities and alternative-to-incarceration programs have trauma-informed group sessions that take into account how adolescents process emotions and help them facilitate relationships.

“But the programs offered for adults don’t take into account the fact that a 15-year-old girl and a 45-year-old woman have different needs,” she said. “They have distinct ways of thinking and are going through different issues.”

Special Programs

Across New York State, local programs are being established to help teens in jail and prison, with a special focus on females.

Raise the Age NY is a campaign based in New York City that advocates raising the age of criminal responsibility for children in New York so that children in the legal system will be treated as children.

Herstory writing workshops are offered to women and girls in three Long Island jails. The workshops provide a creative outlet for incarcerated females to share their stories and pain. In 2013, Herstory worked with the Correctional Association to produce an anthology of nine stories by incarcerated female teens released statewide to support the Raise the Age campaign and seek alternatives to juvenile incarceration.

“Girls and women in jail are unheard voices,” said Ligouri, of Herstory Writers Workshop. “We’re trying to raise those voices, and establish a model for change. And because the population of women in prison is much smaller than men, it takes less funding to show that change is possible.”

The one positive thing about being incarcerated with adults for Wadlington, now a receptionist at a construction company, is that it sparked a passionate advocacy against teens being charged as adults.

“I have always surrounded myself with adults so I can learn more and I feel that if I was surrounded by more teenagers, in my own opinion, I would not have begun to do what I do now, in terms of advocacy,” she said. “I still speak with some of the women that were younger than me in there and they went back to the same lifestyle, doing the same things. I don’t.”

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