Who Cares For Incarcerated Girls?
March 09, 2007
Mie Lewis is the Aryeh Neier Fellow with the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch. She is the author of " Custody and Control: Conditions of Confinement in New York’s Juvenile Prisons for Girls ." Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Over the past two weeks , a United Nations body called the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) has been meeting in New York to discuss violence and discrimination against girls. Inside the U.N., crowds of mainly female delegates stride though wide, dim basement hallways, consulting multicolored fliers and clustering around laptops and informational booths. Tobacco smoke hangs thick over a small cafeteria corner—the U.N. is international territory, immune to New York City ordinances.
In one large conference hall the 45 members of the commission sit among a semicircular array of tables, meticulously adjusting the language of the “Agreed Conclusions”—a record of the commission’s findings and its directives to governments on how to protect and nurture girls.
The conclusions aren’t legally binding, but this hasn’t discouraged the U.S. delegation from acting vigorously to frustrate the document’s intent. An early draft of the conclusions made the apparently controversial assertion that girls should receive “affordable and adequate health-care services.” The U.S. moved to delete this language. Was it the specter of socialized medicine that provoked the objection, or the suspicion that “health-care services” could include abortion? Possibly the latter, as the U.S., along with Syria, Egypt and the Vatican, also moved to delete adolescent girls’ right to confidential reproductive health counseling and to insert copious language ascribing “primary responsibility” for the reproductive lives of girls to their parents.
This is standard practice for the Bush administration, whose 2005 delegation to the CSW reportedly lobbied vigorously but unsuccessfully to append anti-abortion language to a document reaffirming the declaration on women’s rights adopted by the world community in Beijing 10 years earlier. The regressive stance of the U.S. delegation also reflects, of course, the Bush administration’s position on the rightful place of women and girls in society.
One group of girls routinely denied basic rights in the U.S.—and in many other nations represented at the CSW session—are those in conflict with the law, and especially those in state custody. The reports of U.N. and NGO representatives during the CSW session made it clear that, in spite of a mountain of international norms dictating how governments should care for children in custody, incarcerated girls are still targeted for abuse. I spent my time at the meeting attempting to garner support for an amendment, introduced by the Turkish delegation, aimed at recognizing the vulnerability of incarcerated girls. The language calls on governments to lock girls up only when absolutely necessary and to protect those incarcerated from abuse.
Girls confined in the U.S. face excessive use of force, verbal abuse—often sexual in nature—indifference to their grievances and excessive and demeaning security measures such as strip searches conducted so often that they begin to look less like a correctional necessity and more like state-sanctioned humiliation. Girls’ needs are neglected and they often receive fewer rehabilitative services than boys. The recent news of serious abuse and an official cover-up in juvenile prisons in Texas is just one in a steady drumbeat of such revelations all over the U.S.
If the U.S. and other countries are serious about protecting girls from state violence, they must observe a few key rules. First, because isolating troubled children in prison-like institutions makes abuse almost inevitable, the incarceration of girls must be vastly reduced. The root causes of girls’ misbehavior must be addressed by attending to families’ basic health and economic needs and ensuring girls’ access to quality educational and economic opportunities. Second, because institutionalized abuse against children thrives in secrecy, all incarceration sites must be closely overseen by independent monitors. Third, attempts to protect girls by creating new or harsher criminal penalties for their abusers arguably reinforces patriarchal norms by keeping them dependent on an outside authority for protection. Instead, girls should be provided the access to resources, including courts and legal advice, that they need to assert their own rights. And still more research is necessary before we know what interventions really work to help girls in conflict with the law.
There are many ways to accomplish such reforms in the U.S.
As this session of the Commission on the Status of Women enters its last day, let’s hope the language on incarcerated girls survives to give a small nod to the countless girls worldwide hidden behind the walls of juvenile facilities, adult lockups, pretrial detention sites, immigration jails and the like. And let’s hope against hope that someday soon, the U.S. changes course and acts in the myriad possible ways to uphold and uplift international standards on the rights of girls.