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Conditions of Confinement for Children in Colorado Fail to Meet International Standards

Virtually every incarceration facility for children in the state of Colorado is overcrowded and unsafe, according to High Country Lockup: Colorado Children in Confinement,

"Colorado needs to devote creative attention and adequate funding to improving its detention facilities for children. Despite the tough talk and harsh treatment, these youths will return to society. For society's sake as well as theirs, the state needs to make major changes," urged Lois Whitman, Director of the Human Rights Watch Children's Rights Project.

Human Rights Watch found the following human rights abuses in the Colorado system:

Shameful crowding at almost every institution, which lies at the root of many of the other problems. Some are occupied at two and a half times their planned capacity.
Over representation of minority children in commitment.
Commitment of children who could learn and be supervised within the community and present no threat to public safety.
Use of restraints and punitive segregation in violation of international standards.
Lack of education and psychological treatment for many of the children to prepare them for reintegration into the community.
State abdication of its responsibilities and surrender of its powers to protect children committed to its care, by sending children to private facilities, both in and out of state.
The placement of children out of state, away from their families, and in private contract facilities where the state has little control over day-to-day operations or the quality and training of staff.
Complaints of chronic hunger except at Adams Youth Services Center and the Youthful Offender System. Boys tended to complain about quantity; girls, about quality. At Mount View, almost all those interviewed said the food contained foreign substances.
Detention of children for status offenses, like truancy, if the child committed the status offence while under court jurisdiction. Ironically, juveniles detained for truancy may not be able to attend classes.
Unsafe conditions ranging from staff failure to protect children from assaults by other inmates, to health code violations.
Unreported incidents of physical and verbal abuse of children by staff.
About 16,000 children in Colorado were in detention during 1995. In 1996, the number was 17,500, more than double the number of juveniles in detention a decade earlier. Of those passing through the system, more than half are released within forty-eight hours. The rest are held for further action. Some eventually go to community-based programs. Others are detained for trial, held for assessment or kept waiting in detention for a placement. About 330 children were sentenced to the adult Department of Corrections in 1996. Another 700 were committed to the Division of Youth Corrections.

Human Rights Watch interviewed children and staff at seven state-operated institutions and one private contract facility between July 1996 and January 1997. High Country Lockup specifically looks at conditions in these facilities against the backdrop of United Nations standards for the treatment of children, such as the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which has been signed but not ratified by the U.S., and other international agreements. The Convention on the Rights of the Child has been ratified or acceded to by 190 countries; only two countries have not done so: Somalia, which has no internationally-recognized government, and the United States.

Human Rights Watch offers a detailed set of recommendations to improve conditions for children in Colorado facilities, and to make those facilities conform with international standards. Among them:

To the state of Colorado:

Ensure that state standards for the care and treatment of children in detention and correction institutions--both state-run and private--comply with international standards.
Order a review of all children in custody with an eye toward releasing those who pose no threat to public safety.
Replace incarceration with community-based services whenever possible.
End overcrowding of institutions; place a population cap on all juvenile institutions and ensure that it is observed. End immediately the practice of placing three or four children in a room designed for one. Provide each child with a bed and reasonable privacy.
Regularly advise courts of the number of beds available for commitments; ensure that number is not exceeded.
Immediately end under-staffing; provide sufficient numbers of well-trained staff so that children can be properly supervised.
End the practice of placing children under eighteen in adult prisons or detention facilities.
Ensure that institutions provide a safe and healthy environment for children.
Ensure that treatment and education, not punishment, are the primary goals of the juvenile justice system.
Allow children at least one hour a day for outdoor exercise.
Eliminate placement of children in private contract facilities that violate international standards and bring children home from out-of-state placements.
Ensure that courts hold expedited hearings for youths terminated from the Youthful Offender System. Those terminated should not be forced to wait for months in lockdown until the court schedules a hearing.
Rigorously enforce regulations against physical abuse of children by staff. Appropriately discipline staff found to have abused children; dismiss where indicated. Where appropriate, bring criminal charges against staff. Fully inform staff of the rules and consequences concerning physical abuse of children.
Adhere to grievance procedures, take appropriate follow-up action, and notify children of the disposition of their grievances.
End the practice of using isolation as a disciplinary measure.
Provide sufficient food for all children.
Take steps to correct the committing of disproportionate numbers of minority children to institutions.
Do not place status offenders in detention or correction facilities.
Provide children with access to attorneys, both in person and on the telephone.
To the Federal government:

In accordance with the purposes of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention should:

Develop mandatory standards for the administration of juvenile justice that at a minimum comply with international standards, and apply to both public and private institutions.
Assist state and local governments in improving the administration of juvenile justice.
Monitor states that take part in the formula grants program to ensure that status offenders are not held in detention facilities or corrections institutions; that children are not incarcerated with adults; and that the juvenile justice system is administered fairly, without discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, or other status.
The Department of Justice, in accordance with the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act, should regularly initiate investigations into the conditions in which children are confined to determine that they comply with U.S. constitutional law and international standards.
Congress should pass legislation expanding the mandate of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention to include a requirement to monitor the conditions of confinement for children in the justice system and states' compliance with U.S. constitutional law in confining children.
The United States should ratify the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Copies of this report are available from the Publications Department, 485 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10017 for $13.50 (North America shipping) and $18 (international shipping). Visa and MasterCard accepted.

Human Rights Watch Children's Rights Project

The Human Rights Watch Children's Rights Project was established in 1994 to monitor and promote the human rights of children around the world. Lois Whitman is the director; Yodon Thonden is counsel; Dorothy Davidson, Rosa Ehrenreich and Lee Tucker are consultants; and Linda Shipley is the associate. Jane Green Schaller chairs the Advisory committee.

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