South Dakota: Stop Abuses of Detained Kids
Governor Must End Inhumane Practices
A letter to South Dakota Governor William Janklow from Michael Bochenek, Counsel, Children's Rights Division, Human Rights Watch
March 6, 2000
The Honorable William J. Janklow
500 East Capitol
Pierre, South Dakota 57501-5070
By Facsimile: (605) 773-4711
Dear Governor Janklow:
We are extremely concerned by reports of arbitrary and inhumane disciplinary practices and other egregious human rights abuses in South Dakota's juvenile detention facilities. Many of these youth are detained for minor offenses such as shoplifting; others are locked up for "status" offenses such as truancy or running away from home. Under the state's juvenile sentencing guidelines, these children may be detained indefinitely up to the age of twenty-one.
Juvenile rights groups, parents of youth in detention, and the children themselves have charged that guards shackle youth in spread-eagled fashion after cutting their clothes off (a practice known as "four-pointing"), chain youth inside their cells ("bumpering"), and place children in isolation twenty-three hours a day for extended periods of time. Girls held in the State Training School report that they have been strip-searched by male guards, sprayed with pepper spray while naked, and handcuffed spread-eagled to their beds. In all facilities, children also report that they are forced to endure grossly inadequate mental health care, glaring deficiencies in education, and other substandard conditions of confinement.
As you know, reports of abuses in South Dakota's juvenile facilities are nothing new. In July 1999, Gina Score, a fourteen-year-old, collapsed during a forced run at the state's boot camp for girls. According to the state investigators' report, she frothed at the mouth after she collapsed, lost control of her bladder, progressively lost her ability to communicate, and eventually became completely unresponsive. The staff at the boot camp refused to allow other detainees to form a human shield for her, reportedly commenting that they should not make things "easy" or "comfortable" for her. She remained near where she fell for three and a quarter hours before the staff transported her to a hospital. Her body temperature upon admission was at least 108 degrees, the limit of the thermometer's ability to measure. She never revived; doctors pronounced her dead an hour after she was admitted.
After her death, other youth and parents came forward with additional accounts of abuses at all state juvenile detention facilities. At least two lawsuits have been brought against the state, including a class-action suit filed February 24, 2000 by the Youth Law Center.
Children should not have to bring a federal lawsuit to ensure that the state respects their fundamental rights. We urge you to take immediate steps to ensure that policies and practices in all state juvenile facilities comply with state, federal, and international law. At a minimum, these steps should include the following:
End the use of "four-pointing," "bumpering," and similar practices. Physical restraint and the use of force should only be used after all other control methods have been exhausted and failed. Methods of restraint should never cause humiliation or degradation. They should be used restrictively and only for the shortest possible period of time. "Four-pointing" and "bumpering" fail to comply with every one of these principles and amount to cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment or punishment, in violation of international law.
Prohibit the use of solitary confinement. International standards forbid the use of closed or solitary confinement or any other punishment that may compromise a child's physical or mental health. As with "four-pointing" and "bumpering," the placement of children in twenty-three hour solitary confinement for days or weeks at a time is a flagrant violation of international law.
End routine strip-searches and other forcible disrobing of girls by male guards. Routinely permitting male guards to strip-search girls violates their right to bodily privacy. This practice is especially alarming in light of a November 1999 Argus Leader report that between 75 and 90 percent of girls in the State Training School have been sexually abused in the past. As the Argus Leader noted, girls who have been the victims of sexual abuse may relive their abuse when male guards force them to disrobe and subject them to intrusive bodily searches. Detention center policies and practices should strictly limit strip-searches, pat frisks, and visual observation by members of the opposite sex to emergency situations.
Abolish indeterminate sentencing of youth. International standards provide that children should be deprived of their liberty only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time. In addition, a juvenile disposition must always be proportionate to the gravity of the offense, the circumstances of the child, and the needs of the community. Indeterminate sentencing violates these principles and flouts basic standards of due process and fundamental fairness.
End the practice of locking up status offenders. According to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, South Dakota is one of only three states that do not comply with federal legislation mandating the deinstitutionalization of status offenders. The federal Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, enacted in 1974, requires states to remove all status offenders from juvenile detention and correctional facilities.
The serious charges brought by South Dakota's detained youth amount to a stunning indictment of the state's juvenile detention system. At the very least, they are a clarion call for a thorough review of existing policies and practices at all state juvenile detention facilities. We strongly urge you to conduct such a review and take immediate steps to protect the safety of youth in state custody.
Children's Rights Division