Native Youth Incarceration (community/news)

"Native Americans and Juvenile Justice: A Hidden Tragedy,"

by Terry L. Cross November/December 2008 issue of Poverty & Race

In the United States in 2008, there are more than 560 federally-recognized American Indian tribes comprising an American Indian/Alaska Native (AI/AN) population of approximately 4 million individuals. About half this population lives on reservations, and the others live off-reservation, primarily in urban communities. The AI/AN population is young: 42%—almost 2 million—are under 19 years of age. Twenty percent (800,000) are at risk—60,000 suffer abuse or neglect each year. According to the Youth Violence Research Bulletin, the suicide rate for American Indian juveniles (57 per 1 million) was almost twice the rate for white juveniles and the highest for any race. In addition, 200,000 are believed to suffer from serious emotional disturbances.

American Indian youth are grossly over-represented in state and federal juvenile justice systems and secure confinement. Incarcerated Indian youth are much more likely to be subjected to the harshest treatment in the most restrictive environments and less likely to have received the help they need from other systems. AI/AN youth are 50% more likely than whites to receive the most punitive measures. Pepper spray, restraint and isolation appear to be grossly and disproportionately applied to Indian youth, who have no recourse, no alternatives and few advocates.

In 2003, litigation over conditions in a South Dakota state training school revealed horrible abuses in the use of restraints and isolation, yet little in the way of education or mental health services. Findings also showed that Native youth were significantly over-represented in the lockdown unit and thus subject to the worst abuses. For example, one young girl from the Pine Ridge Reservation had been held in a secure unit within the facility for almost two years, during which time she was placed in four-point restraints while spread-eagled on a cement slab for hours at a time, kept in isolation for days and even weeks, and pepper-sprayed numerous times. This young girl, like many of the females confined at the facility, suffered from significant mental health and substance abuse issues. Due to the lack of appropriate mental health treatment and the harsh conditions in the facility, she resorted to self-harming behavior as a way to draw attention to herself, and like many of the other girls now has scars up and down her arms from cutting herself. Finally, the facility also instituted a rule that penalized Native youth for speaking in their Native language, and several were placed on lockdown status for speaking Lakota to each other.
There is a growing awareness that many tribes’ children and youth are being taken outside the care, custody and control of their families, communities and tribal government, and that many are suffering from extreme physical, mental and emotional abuse in the process. 

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