Youth inmates in Cuyahoga County face unacceptable conditions: Leah Winsberg
CLEVELAND – “They treat us like animals… we can’t get out of [our] rooms for we don’t know how long… we fear for our lives… we just want to see and hear our family… please help us.
The words echoed on social media last summer in a letter written by a youth at the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Detention Center, where about 125 children are being held. The facility is attached to the juvenile court on 93rd Street East and Quincy Avenue. If you’ve been here recently, you wouldn’t guess there are kids staying inside. There is no sign of them in the large backyard. Instead, they stay locked in drab cells, just big enough to accommodate a narrow mattress on a concrete bench for sleeping. This is where they spend most – and sometimes all – of their days. The use of isolation has only intensified during the pandemic, with severe staff shortages.
Over the past year, conditions have become so dire that they beg the question: How can we as a community justify this mistreatment of our young people?
Through direct conversations with credible sources, I have learned that in addition to not having access to basic hygiene – like soap, clean linen, and sanitized living spaces – young people are forced to wear soiled underwear and being shackled to go to the bathroom. Those who refuse to be chained are given bags to relieve themselves in their cell. They often go to bed hungry and wake up hungry. There is not enough staff to transport young people throughout the establishment. Thus, meals are delayed, young people eat alone in their cells, daily exercise and in-person school are refused, and rehabilitation programs and family contacts are non-existent.
This “lockdown” is the establishment’s response to the understaffing, which the judicial authorities have publicly recognized as a “crisis”. Cuyahoga County Juvenile Court Administrative Judge Thomas O’Malley warned that operating the facility at current staff levels “has the potential for disaster, which introduces an unacceptable level of liability to the court. for minors and Cuyahoga County ”. In other words, expect impending tragedy. But the truth is, the current tragedy is that we have become unresponsive to the regular neglect and abuse of our youth.
O’Malley acknowledged the facility’s recent overreliance on segregation, depriving young people of necessary exercise, education and programs. But these problems have been escalating for years. And in a troubling and unprecedented turn, at the end of August, the court fired national experts it had hired to help the facility reduce isolation and use diversion, just days after warning of a ” disaster”.
In reality, we are all paying for these continued failures. When these children are released, they will bear the scars of the trauma inflicted on them in this facility. And our community will suffer the consequences.
Isolation is particularly devastating for children and can lead to lasting psychological consequences, including depression and suicide.
Dr Jane Pearson with the National Institute of Health said, referring to a series of stressful events, from romantic breakups to violence, “Teens don’t have the experience of life to know that these things will be temporary, that they will be okay.” She suggested that the teens might think they would rather die than go through the current situation.
Young inmates in Cuyahoga County are under unimaginable stress. It’s little surprise, then, when you hear that they’ve lost their temper, like the rampage in August when a boy tried to hang himself from the ceiling and another tried to harm himself.
Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. said: “a riot is the language of the unheard of. “I urge you to speak up for these children. We must demand better care for particularly vulnerable children. Call your representative from Cuyahoga County Council. Demand a public hearing, urgency and humane treatment of our young people. .
Leah Winsberg is a Cleveland resident and an attorney at Children’s Law Center Inc. Winsberg is involved at the local and state level, advocating for young people in Ohio affected by the juvenile justice system.
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