Children's Rights

Easy Targets: Violence Against Children Worldwide

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Violence In Detention

It was a nightmare when they took him out.  First of all, he had such a bruise on his head, they beat him on the head with something, a nightstick or something else. . . .  Then I looked, he didn’t tell me right away, and it turned out that they had worked on him with tear gas!  Red eyes . . . .  He was all hysterical!  He had to throw up.

On his back there were red spots, the next day bruises appeared and we photographed them on Polaroid. . . .  There were also bruises on Igor’s legs.  Mostly on the hips, not round ones but stretched ones, as if they were beating him with sticks.

— Mother of Igor A., fourteen when detained in Russia’s Irkutsk Province[15]

Once placed in police lock-ups or detention facilities, children are frequently subjected to severe corporal punishment, torture, isolation, restraints, sexual assaults, harassment, and humiliation.  Negligent practices can also facilitate physical and sexual abuse by other children.  Prohibitions against ill-treatment frequently are not enforced, in part because it is the officers of enforcement themselves who perpetrate such violence. Fellow officers rarely report such abuse, and supervisors often fail to investigate reports of ill-treatment. Grievance procedures frequently are ineffective, and children’s reports of abuse often are not taken seriously or considered credible.

In the United States, Human Rights Watch found that children in juvenile detention facilities in Georgia were bound to a bed at the wrists and ankles for several hours, often face down, as a form of discipline.[16] A subsequent investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice found that staff persistently used excessive physical force against detainees, hitting or slamming youth onto the ground and into walls. Suicidal detainees were forcibly stripped, shackled to beds or even toilets, and sprayed with chemical pepper spray. In Georgia’s “boot camp” programs, where children are sent as an alternative to detention, staff routinely punished children by placing them on the ground and twisting their arms behind their backs, up to the neck, for up to a half hour or more. In November 1997, a staff supervisor broke a child’s arm in this fashion. A month earlier, the same individual broke a child’s eardrum when he hit the youth in the head for talking in line.[17]

In the U.S. state of Colorado, a 1996 Human Rights Watch investigation found that in some juvenile detention facilities, attacks and sexual assaults among residents were described as routine events. None of the children we interviewed in one center said that they felt safe; they described staff members as physically abusive and said that assaults by other residents were unreported or ignored by staff.[18]

In the Baltimore City Detention Center in the U.S. state of Maryland, guards sometimes allowed youths to fight with each other in what is called the “square dance.”  The two boys who were going to fight were allowed into a little area about eight feet by eight feet, and everyone else was locked in their cells.

Jackson F. described a square dance:

There’s a lot of yelling from everybody, but if it gets too loud the officers will tell you you need to be quiet or they’ll break up the dance.  It ends up with busted heads, slashes over your eyes, broken fingers, cut lips, maybe a broken nose.  But you don’t go to the hospital for the cuts.  If you did, there’d have to be a report, and the guards would have to explain why two guys were out in the square while everybody else was locked in.[19]

In Kenya, children reported that guards in remand prisons (temporary detention centers) were indifferent to their complaints of abuse by other inmates:

There were two older boys in the room who supervised everyone. They might beat you up, or sell your clothes to buy cigarettes, or take your food. One of them tried to seduce me, but I refused, so I was beaten up and had my clothes taken away from me. They smeared excrement from the toilet all over my body. I tried to complain to the prison guards about it, but they wouldn’t listen.[20]

In correctional schools in Kenya, children consistently complained about the use of corporal punishment. They told us they were caned for offenses as minor as having buttons missing from a uniform, not doing homework, making noise, accidentally breaking a window pane, fighting with other children, and “going to the gate of the school.”[21] In a borstal facility,[22] one boy said, “everyone who comes on duty canes you when you’re in there.”[23] Boys also described public beatings:

The boy was stripped naked, and made to bend over a stand, shackled at the hands and ankles.  They put a wet salted cloth on his back side, and give him strokes of a young supple bamboo cane.  The other boys were assembled around to watch.  This punishment was used for things like homosexual acts, or trying to escape, or smoking cigarettes or smoking bhang [marijuana].[24]

In Guatemala, Human Rights Watch found troubling abuses in rehabilitation centers run by a Spanish evangelical Christian organization called REMAR (Rehabilitación de los Marginados).  REMAR ran these centers on behalf of the government (children were sent to them by the courts) but received almost no oversight, monitoring, or control by the government.  Over and over again during a 1996 investigation, boys told us of the beatings they had suffered at the hands of REMAR staff. A sixteen-year-old boy told us:

They hit you with aluminum baseball bats. They put you face down on the ground and hit you on the back with the bat. Once I saw them hit a boy so hard they broke his ribs. Then they threw him into isolation. Later, because of his broken ribs, they had to call an ambulance.[25]

In Bulgaria, seventeen-year-old Boyan W. reported the following punishment while in a Labor Education School:

Once I made a mistake on a dictation test.  The teacher took me to the director’s office.  They made me sit in a chair.  They tied my hands behind my back and started to beat me with cable wires.  The director took out a thin steel stick, and struck me on my wrist.  The day after the beating, my wrist hurt so much I went to see the nurse.  She told me my wrist was broken and sent me to the hospital in Pleven.  I wore a cast for several weeks after that.[26]

Punishments in the schools routinely included beatings, denial of home vacations, confinement in an “isolator,” heavy labor, and reductions in diet.  Further, there was no recourse to complaint procedures—one eighteen-year-old girl said “[c]omplaining here is like a voice in the desert”[27] —and children at some schools were severely punished for attempting to speak out about what went on at the school to outsiders.  One young boy, who was beaten by teachers so severely that he had to be sent to the hospital for treatment of head injuries, was warned by school staff not to talk to doctors about the reason for his injuries or else he would never be able to leave the Labor Education School.[28]

Boys and girls alike may be subject to sexual abuse. In April 1999, children in the juvenile ward of a Pakistani prison rioted after members of the prison staff beat a thirteen-year-old boy for complaining of sexual abuse by the head warden.[29] A legal aid center reported that such cases were far from isolated, and that they received many reports of sexual abuse of juveniles by both prison staff and adult inmates.

Julia, a fifteen-year-old Jamaican girl who ran away from home, was picked up by police as a child “in need of care and protection” and taken to the local police station. During her second night in the lockup, she said, a police officer came to her and asked her age. When she told him, he asked if she had ever had sex. She said no and said that he tied her down with a belt, and raped and beat her.[30]

In clear violation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, children who have been taken into police custody are frequently detained with adult offenders. In some cases, children who are charged as adults are automatically detained in adult facilities, in other cases children are held in adult facilities because there is simply not enough room for them in juvenile facilities. In either case, little effort may be made to maintain separation between children and adults, as mandated by international law. As a result, children are exposed to physical and sexual abuse and psychological and developmental harm.

In the United States, at least forty states adopted legislation in the 1990s making it easier for children to be tried as adults. One of the immediate results in that increasing numbers of children are detained in adult jails while they await trial and sentenced to adult prisons.

In 1995, sixteen-year-old Rodney Hulin, Jr. (his real name) was sentenced to eight years for arson, and sent to an adult prison in the U.S. state of Texas. Older inmates immediately started to threaten and harass him; within a week he was raped. Hulin requested protective custody, but was denied. His father testified in 1997:

For the next several months, my son was repeatedly beaten by the older inmates, forced to perform oral sex, robbed and beaten again. Each time, his requests for protection were denied by the warden. The abuses, meanwhile, continued. On the night of January 26, 1996—seventy-five days after my son entered Clemens—Rodney attempted suicide by hanging himself in his cell. He could no longer stand to live in continual terror. It was too much for him to handle. He laid in a coma for the next four months until he died. [31]

One seventeen-year-old in a Maryland jail reported that the adult inmates in his section continually harassed him by throwing urine and excrement into his cell.  When the guards refused to move him, he told them he was suicidal and was removed to the mental health unit.  When he returned to his section, he asked to be housed in an isolation cell because it had a steel door and nothing could be thrown into his cell.  In the  cell, he said, there “[a]in’t nothing in it, just a toilet and a bed.  I’m the only person in there.  I stay there twenty-four hours a day, only come out Tuesday and Friday for a five-minute shower, then get locked back in.”[32]

Many children in Guatemala are also incarcerated with adults.  Three boys interviewed by Human Rights Watch had been sent to an adult prison where minors and adults were not separated.  One boy said that the “adult prisoners make you take your clothes off, they make you ‘trade’ your clothes.  Otherwise they’ll beat you up.”[33]  According to another boy, “in the adult prisons, you have to pay money to get a place to sleep.  Otherwise you sleep on the floor, in the garbage. … Boys who are put in with the adults are often raped.  This is very common. … The guards don’t pay any attention.”[34]

[15] Human Rights Watch, Confessions at Any Cost, pp. 80-81.

[16] Human Rights Watch, United States:  Modern Capital of Human Rights?  Abuses in the State of Georgia, (Human Rights Watch, New York, 1996), p. 120.

[17] Letter from Bill Lann Lee, Acting Assistant Attorney General, Civil Rights Division, U.S. Department of Justice, to the Honorable Zell Miller, Governor of Georgia, February 13, 1998.

[18] Human Rights Watch, High Country Lockup: Children in Confinement in Colorado (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1997).

[19] Human Rights Watch, No Minor Matter: Children in Maryland's Jails (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1999), p. 73.

[20] Human Rights Watch, Juvenile Injustice, p. 83.

[21] Ibid., p. 89.

[22] Borstal institutions are correctional institutions under the administration of the Kenyan Prisons Department, to which children fifteen years old and above may be committed after being found guilty of criminal offenses.

[23]Human Rights Watch, Juvenile Injustice, p. 96.

[24] Ibid., p. 97.

[25] Human Rights Watch, Forgotten Children of War: Sierra Leonean Refugee Children in Guinea, p. 76.

[26] Human Rights Watch, Children of Bulgaria, p. 61.

[27] Ibid., p. 65.

[28] Ibid., p. 65.

[29] Human Rights Watch, Prison Bound, p. 51.

[30] Ibid., p. 59.

[31] Human Rights Watch, No Escape: Male Rape in U.S. Prisons, (New York: Human Rights Watch 2001), p. 61.

[32] Human Rights Watch, No Minor Matter, p. 69.

[33] Human Rights Watch, Forgotten Children, p. 66.

[34] Ibid., p. 66.

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