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Steven Hsieh

Steven Hsieh

Stories that matter. Tips: shsieh@thenation.com.

Migrant Children Accuse Border Patrol Agents of Physical and Sexual Assault

Border in Arizona

US Customs and Border Patrol Agents gather along the International border near Naco, Arizona. (AP Photo/Matt York)

Five immigrant rights groups filed a complaint Wednesday accusing US border officials of participating in the systemic abuse of unaccompanied migrant children detained near the southwest border, including physical and sexual abuse, painful shackling and denial of adequate food and water.

The complaint details alleged abuse and mistreatment suffered by 116 children detained by US Customs and Border Protection officials. One in four children said they experienced physical abuse, including kicking, beating and forced stress positions. More than half reported verbal abuse, including taunts, death threats and racist or sexually charged comments. A majority said they were held for longer than seventy-two hours, the maximum time permitted before CBP officials are required to transfer custody to the Office of Refugee Resettlement.

Cases of abuse and mistreatment are described in graphic detail. A sixteen-year-old Central American girl said agents “violently spread her legs” while searching her, touching her genitalia and making her scream. A seventeen-year-old boy detained near Hidalgo, Texas said he was forced to maintain a stress position for twenty minutes as punishment for laughing. A seventeen-year-old rape survivor who fled Guatemala said she was repeatedly harassed by CBP officials; one allegedly told her, “We’re going to put you on a plane, and I hope it explodes. That would be the happiest day of my life.”

Most of the children reported being held in frigid holding cells, nicknamed hieleras, Spanish for “freezers.” Interviewees described squalid conditions at these sites, including severe overcrowding and scarce food and water. In at least one facility, up to 100 children share a single toilet, exposed in plain view to everyone, including CBP officers.

The complaint was filed with the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, as well as the Office of the Inspector General. Its authors include the National Immigrant Justice Center, Esperanza Immigrant Rights Project, the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona and Americans for Immigrant Justice.

In response to the complaint, CBP spokesperson Michael Friel said, “While in temporary custody, CBP strives to protect unaccompanied children with special procedures and safeguards…. Mistreatment or misconduct is not tolerated.”

The accusations come as immigration officials struggle to deal with unprecedented influx of migrant children across the US-Mexico border, deemed an “urgent humanitarian crisis” by President Obama. CBP officials have apprehended more than 47,000 unaccompanied children since October, nearly double the number from last year. Experts tie the surge of child migrants to increasing gang violence in Central America, including Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. Human and civil rights advocates say the recent influx of migrant youths highlights the need to address CBP’s systemic abuse.

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“Children are fleeing untenable conditions in their home countries, including pervasive violence and persecution, and are often re-victimized in transit to the United States,” said Joseph Anderson, director of litigation for Americans for Immigrant Justice, in a statement. “We need to ensure that these children are treated with dignity and respect and afforded all applicable legal protections while they are in US custody.”

CBP, the largest law enforcement agency in the nation, is no stranger to accusations of misconduct. The agency removed its top internal affairs chief this week over mounting criticism that he routinely refused to investigate use-of-force allegations.

The groups involved with the complaint are calling for immediate redress and reform, including enhanced oversight through an independent body and the creation of short-term detention standards, as well as a streamlined complaint process. They are also asking for an investigation into the abuse cases described in the complaint.

“This complaint is further proof that the CBP is an agency in need of massive reform,” said James Lyall of the ACLU Border Litigation Project. “This should be the final straw.”


Read Next: Why hundreds of unaccompanied children are being held in border partol facility

Hundreds of Unaccompanied Children Are Being Held in a Makeshift Border Patrol Facility


The international border fence near Nogales, Arizona (AP Images/Matt York)

Immigrant advocates and public officials are raising concerns about the conditions at a makeshift Border Patrol facility in Arizona that is temporarily housing hundreds of unaccompanied children, part of an unprecedented surge of cross-border migration that President Obama has called an “urgent humanitarian situation.”

Officials say conditions at facility in Nogales, a warehouse, have improved since last week, when reports emerged that some children were sleeping on plastic containers, while others had gone ten days without showering. US Customs and Border Protection officials have secured mattresses and shower facilities for the children. Still, the warehouse does not have indoor plumbing and officials have raised questions about the food being served to the children.

Most of the thousand or so migrant children currently housed in the warehouse were apprehended in Texas and subsequently flown to Arizona due to space constraints. Officials said the children will eventually be transferred to military bases in Texas, California and Oklahoma.

In a letter to President Obama, Representative Raúl M. Grijalva (D-AZ) said the Nogales facility is not in a suitable condition to hold the unaccompanied children. Representative Grijalva requested details on improvements to the facility as well as a contingency location “in the event that the improvements necessary to make conditions habitable are not immediately possible.” He also asked the White House to allow humanitarian groups on the south side of the border to enter Arizona to help treat the unaccompanied children.

Federal law requires ICE officials to turn over unaccompanied children to the Office of Refugee Resettlement within seventy-two hours. The ORR is then tasked with finding adult relatives or foster families to look after the children as they await deportation proceedings.

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Immigration advocates have long predicted an influx of unaccompanied migrant children this month, owing to seasonal migration patterns and rising violence in Central America. Most of the children waiting in Nogales migrated from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, countries where gang violence is particularly prevalent.

A report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees found that many unaccompanied children apprehended at the US-Mexico border “may well be in need of international protection.” UNCHR researchers interviewed 402 children, finding that 58 percent left their home country after suffering, or being threatened with, gang violence, sexual abuse or exploitation by the smuggling industry.

US Customs and Border Protection reports that 47,017 unaccompanied children have been apprehended at the border this fiscal year, since October 1, nearly double the total number from FY2013. The number of unaccompanied children crossing the border from El Salvador, Guatemala or Honduras has increased by more than 1,000 percent since 2009.

White House officials told reporters that they expected an influx of migrant children, but were caught off guard by the magnitude of the surge. The Los Angeles Times reported Monday that the Obama administration is asking for about $2 billion dollars to handle the crisis.

Read Next: Max Blumenthal on the private-prison industry profiting off of immigrant detainees

The Real ‘Orange Is the New Black’ Jail Is a Health Hazard Filled With Mold and Human Feces

Suffolk County Jail

The Suffolk County Correctional Facility in Riverhead, New York (AP Photo/Ed Betz)

Orange is the New Black, the Netflix series returning Friday, explores the lives of women serving time at Litchfield Penitentiary, a fictional prison in upstate New York.

The series was partially filmed at Suffolk County jail in Riverhead, a men’s facility in Long Island. But when viewers stream Orange over the weekend, they likely won’t see—and certainly won’t smell—the overflow of feces Riverhead’s actual prisoners are exposed to every day.

To mark the season two premiere of Orange, prisoners’ rights advocates launched a campaign to raise awareness of the notoriously squalid conditions at Riverhead and Yaphank, another Suffolk County jail. Twitter users tweeted from the hashtag #HumanityIsTheNewBlack to spread the word. A call to action posted online by the New York Civil Liberties Union reads, “Suffolk County should take the energy it puts into wooing Hollywood into cleaning up the shocking conditions at the Riverhead and Yaphank jails.” NYCLU Senior Legal Adviser Corey Stoughton said the campaigners hope to connect viewers’ empathy for characters in the show with prisoners in real life.

“What I love about the show is how good it is at portraying the humanity of people who are flawed and have made mistakes, but are still human beings who deserve respect,” Stoughton told The Nation. “That’s true of the people housed at the real jail as it is of the characters in the show.”

The NYCLU and law firm Shearman & Sterling filed a class-action lawsuit in 2012 on behalf of current and former prisoners at Riverhead and Yaphank. The suit claims that prisoners housed at the jails live “amidst filth, overflowing sewage, and pervasive mold, rust, and vermin.” Tap water is regularly “brown or yellow in color,” and many inmates forgo drinking it to avoid getting sick.

The lawsuit describes a plumbing issue that causes sewage in one toilet to rise in another, sometimes overflowing onto cell floors, described as a health hazard by facility nurses. The accumulation of waste from so-called “ping-pong toilets” causes inmates “to regularly vomit, cough, and suffer from nausea and severe headaches due to the fumes,” the lawsuit states. In this video, former Riverhead detainee Jason Porter recounts an incident in which every toilet on a tier “exploded,” producing a flood of human waste reaching “about seven inches above the ground”

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The chief of staff for the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Office, Michael Sharkey, told The Nation that the Orange crew filmed portions of one episode at Riverhead jail in “an area of the facility not populated at the time.” Sharkey declined to comment on the specifics of the lawsuit.

Unlike the women in Orange, most of the men detained at Riverhead are awaiting trial and have not been convicted of a crime, while others are serving short sentences for minor violations.


Read Next: Inmates slapped, beaten and tased without provocation in Los Angeles County.

Former Los Angeles Deputy: We Beat, Slapped and Tased Inmates Without Provocation

LA County Jail

Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputies inspect a cell block at the Men’s Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon, File)

An ex-deputy described in federal court Tuesday how he and his colleagues routinely abused inmates at LA County jails and falsified reports to justify their actions, the latest sign of a culture of brutality pervading the county’s jail system.

Former Sheriff’s Deputy Gilbert Michel, 40, described how guards would beat, slap and tase inmates unprovoked, knowing that they would receive total impunity for their actions, reports the Los Angeles Times. If inmates sustained injuries from abuse, deputies would simply make up scenarios to shift the blame onto their victims. Deputies didn’t bother writing reports if inmates didn’t display evidence of physical abuse. Michel added that he learned the abusive practice “on the job.”

Michel testified in the trial of six sheriff’s officials accused of obstructing a federal civil rights investigation of excessive force allegations. He described one incident in which an inmate refused to answer his questions, telling the deputy to “talk to my lawyer.” As the inmate headed back to his cell, another deputy told Michel that the inmate was laughing at him. Michel responded with violence:

Michel said he called the inmate back out into the hallway and told him to face the wall. He told the inmate to spread his legs—and when he didn’t, Michel said, he kicked the inmate’s leg to make him buckle, grabbed the back of his neck and shoved his face into the wall. He did it to provoke a fight and justify a beating, the former deputy said.

LA County jails have a history of pervasive deputy-on-inmate violence. A 2011 report by the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California details the systematic use of excessive force by LA County sheriff’s officers, including dozens of accusations of abuse from inmates and former inmates. Peter Eliasberg, Legal Director of the ACLU Foundation of Southern California, said the abuse described in Michel’s testimony is not at all surprising.

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“Nothing he says is inconsistent with what we’ve been saying for a long time,” Eliasberg told The Nation. “There has been a long pattern of abuse in the jails by deputies to inmates. It is a culture thing. It’s not just a few isolated incidents, but it is in fact commonplace.”

Another report, commissioned by LA County, also found “a pattern of unreasonable force” in the jails, blaming it on a “failure of leadership” among the department’s top officials. The report was especially critical of former Sheriff Lee Baca, who retired earlier this year amid federal investigations of his department.


Read Next: At last, US border agency releases critical report of deadly force practices.

Remembering and Misremembering Tiananmen

Tank man

A Chinese man stands alone to block a line of tanks heading east on Beijing's Cangan Blvd. in Tiananmen Square on June 5, 1989. (AP Photo/Jeff Widener)

This week marks twenty-five years since the People’s Liberation Army slaughtered hundreds, possibly thousands, of unarmed civilians while cracking down on the student-led protest movement in Beijing.

The Chinese government has marked the occasion, as it does every year, with a campaign of increased censorship. Authorities have detained, arrested or questioned dozens of dissidents in recent months, as Internet scrubbers work around the clock to expunge any reference to June 4, 1989, from the record. Few young Chinese know what happened that spring, and most who do dare not speak of it openly.

On the other hand, Western media far too often tells a distorted, simplified version of the story. Robin Munro, a researcher for Human Rights Watch in 1989, was one of few foreigners to witness the final moments in Tiananmen Square that fateful night. Writing for The Nation one year later, Munro sought to correct the popular misconception that students bore the brunt of state-sponsored violence, and that the massacre took place in the square itself. Not so, observed Munro, who watched firsthand the 3,000 or so remaining protesters safely exiting Tiananmen Square at dawn. In reality, “the great majority of those who died were workers, or laobaixing (“common folk”) and they died mainly on the approach roads in western Beijing.”

Munro’s clarification, “Who Died in Beijing, and Why,” shed essential light on the Communist Party’s true fear in 1989: a “full-fledged insurrection” by working-class citizens, who had come out in droves to support the young protesters in the weeks leading up to bloodshed.

“Nothing serves the cause of China’s students and laobaixing better than the unvarnished truth, for it speaks eloquently of their heroism and of the regime’s cowardice and brutality,” Munro wrote. “Western criticisms based on a false version of the clearing of Tiananmen Square have handed the butchers of Beijing needless propaganda victories in the UN and elsewhere.”

Days before the military crackdown, Nation editors hinted at the threat posed by the gathering commoners, as the Communist Party saw it. At that point, hundreds of thousands had filled Tiananmen, inspired by hunger striking students. Our editors wrote, “[W]here a march of 10,000 was an extraordinary event, half a million is suddenly commonplace. What makes this possible is nothing less than a manifest crisis of the legitimacy of the state.” They pushed back against the framing of the protests as “the triumph of the West” and refocused on the discontented masses:

The sirens of the West advised China to flood its markets with goodies and the people would be happy. But that was a fallacy, and the students have the evidence—the corruption of the party, which is what has resulted from China’s unholy marriage between market reform and an unregenerated, closed political system.

In more recent years, Nation contributors have placed anniversaries of the massacre in contemporary contexts. At ten years, journalist Sophie Beach reported on another set of protests taking place in Beijing, this time approved by the Communist Party. In spring of 1999, most demonstrators were not targeting their government, but NATO and the American military, which had recently bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade amid the Kosovo war. Beach, now editor of China Digital Times, observed at the time that The Party used the NATO protests to silence the few dissidents who wanted to talk about Tiananmen:

Indeed, since the NATO bombing, the government has intensified its pre-June 4 crackdown, denouncing concepts of democracy and human rights as synonymous with US hegemony. The People’s Daily, the Communist Party mouthpiece, ran an article in late May condemning overseas democracy activists as traitors to their country.

For the twentieth anniversary of the massacre, China historian Jeffrey Wasserstrom reflected on the necessity of “dwelling” on Tiananmen. We remember 1989 “because common misconceptions about that year persist,” as highlighted by Munro, but also “to stay humble.” Wasserstrom writes that every China specialist was surprised by what happend that spring, “if not by the fact that a massacre occurred then by how long it took for the tanks to roll; if not by how many people risked their lives to fight for change then by the role rock music played in the protests.”

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Though writing ten years apart, Beach and Wasserstrom both explored the possibility of a future uprising, as ordinary Chinese, left behind by the “economic miracle,” become increasingly frustrated with the corruption and opulence displayed by the nation’s ruling elite. Amid the global recession, Wasserstrom wrote:

The party’s real difficulties will come when the memory of the recent upward surge has receded and a broad cross-section of people who have been left behind start to lose hope of prosperous times ahead. This is bound to happen eventually, but not yet. And we should not underestimate the ability of this regime, which has been so effective at defying the odds, to further delay its long-predicted demise.

Five years later, and income inequality in China has reached new heights, while reports of corruption among party officials seem to pop up by the day. Mass industrialization has rendered the air in major cities practically unbreathable. A quarter-century after the June 4 massacre, China has yet to resolve the tensions that inspired the students and workers of Tiananmen Square.


Read Next: The music that inspired the Tiananmen Square student uprising

At Last, US Border Agency Releases Critical Report of Deadly Force Practices

Customs and border protection


Under pressure from media organizations, federal lawmakers and human rights groups, US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) on Friday released a highly critical review of its own use-of-force policies, which the agency had kept under wraps for more than a year.

The review, commissioned by agency officials to the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), examined sixty-seven cases involving the use deadly force by US Border Patrol agents. The report’s authors identified a number of questionable practices, finding that some agents had intentionally stepped in front of moving vehicles to justify shooting at them. Other agents appeared to have fired their weapons at rock-throwers, when simply moving away from the projectiles was an option.

CBP, US Border Patrol’s parent agency, also revealed revised use-of-force guidelines to comply with PERF’s major recommendations. According to Commissioner R. Gil Kerlikowske, the release of both documents is part of a push to increase transparency at the agency, considered one of the most secretive in the federal government.

Human rights groups and members of Congress have repeatedly criticized CBP for concealing its policies, as well as failing to hold agents accountable for questionable uses of force. Border agents have killed at least twenty-eight people since 2010, nine of whom were throwing rocks when confronted by agents with deadly force. No agents are known to have been punished for actions related to the recent spate of killings.

“Before my confirmation, I told Congress that transparency, responsiveness and communication are my hallmarks. I am committed to an open dialogue between CBP and its stakeholders,” said Kerlikowske, who was sworn in this past March. “Today’s actions on CBP’s policies address my priorities for the agency and are a significant step in CBP’s continuing progress.”

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The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit last week under the Freedom of Information Act to compel CBP to release the report. ACLU policy analyst Ruthie Epstein welcomed the revised guidelines, but said that more needs to be done.

“Equipping Border Patrol agents with body-worn cameras will ensure an unbiased record and allow the agency and the community to ensure that these new and improved policies are fully implemented in practice, as well as on paper,” Epstein said in a statement.


Read Next: Did Occupy Wall Street actually make police departments more accountable?

Border Agency Won’t Release ‘Scathing’ Review of Its Own Use-of-Force Policies

US Border Patrol

US Border Patrol agents ride ATVs along the US-Mexico border. (Reuters/Mike Blake)

US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is refusing to release an independent review of its own use-of-force practices, denying repeated requests from members of Congress, media organizations and civil rights groups.

The review in question was commissioned to the Police Executive Research Forum, a nonprofit that develops best practices for law enforcement agencies. PERF researchers examined sixty-seven use-of-force cases that resulted in nineteen deaths, according to the Los Angeles Times, which obtained a leaked version of the “scathing” report earlier this year.

An in-depth investigation by the Arizona Republic found that at least forty-five people have been killed by CBP agents since 2005, including three teenagers who were shot in the back. The Republic’s investigation also revealed that no agents are known to have been disciplined for any of those incidents.

The Center for Investigative Reporting revealed last Friday that CBP denied its open records request for the PERF report eight months after it was initially filed. In denying the request, CBP personnel cited a Freedom of Information Act exemption intended to protect the “free and frank exchange of information among agency personnel.”

The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit Thursday seeking to force CBP to release the PERF report, arguing that its disclosure “is critical to a full and fair public debate about CBP’s use-of-force policies and practices.”

According to another document leaked to the Los Angeles Times, CBP officials initially rejected two major recommendations from the PERF report: (1) barring agents from shooting at vehicles unless the agents’ lives are at risk and (2) barring agents from shooting at people throwing objects, unless the projectiles are life-threatening. But just two weeks after the LA Times revealed PERF's recommendations and CBP's subsequent rejection, Border Patrol Chief Mark J. Fisher ordered agents to stop both practices. 

“[R]elease of the PERF Report is necessary to assess why CBP rejected recommendations by the very respected and independent law enforcement think tank whose expertise CBP sought,” the ACLU’s lawsuit states.

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Customs and Border Protection ordered the PERF review after a 2012 letter from sixteen members of Congress responding to the death of Anastasio Hernandez Rojas, a migrant who was beaten and tased by border agents in 2010. The circumstances surrounding Rojas’s death were caught on a cell phone video and aired as part of a joint investigation by PBS and The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute. CBP also commissioned reviews from an internal investigator and the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General.


Read Next: Forty years after the bloodiest prison uprising in US history, the Attica cover-up continues.

Tennessee and the Electric Chair: A Q&A With Death Penalty Expert Austin Sarat

(AP Images/Pat Sullivan)

(AP Images/Pat Sullivan)

Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam signed a bill Thursday permitting prison officials to use the electric chair to execute death row inmates in the event that lethal injection drugs are unavailable.

The bill makes Tennessee the only state authorizing electrocution as a potential default method of execution. Eight other states allow the use of the electric chair, but only if inmates choose it over another method, usually lethal injection.

We spoke with Dr. Austin Sarat, professor of jurisprudence and political science at Amherst University, about what this means for Tennessee and capital punishment in the United States. Sarat is the author of Gruesome Spectacles: Botched Executions and America’s Death Penalty.

Steven Hsieh: What happens when an electrocution goes awry?

Austin Sarat: The problems with the electric chair run from merely technical problems to problems with gruesome results. One problem with the electric chair is, on occasion, the voltage of the electricity isn’t sufficient to kill the condemned. A classic example happened in Louisiana in the 1940s when a condemned man named Willie Francis was to be put to death by electrocution. The voltage of electricity administered was not enough to kill him, and after passage of some time, he was removed from the chair, brought back to the jail and a second effort to execute him was scheduled. He contested that second execution attempt, but the US Supreme Court allowed it to go forward. On the other end of the continuum, the electric chair has resulted in people catching on fire. That became a particular problem in Florida in the 1970s and early 1980s. Indeed the first electrocution in the United States, carried out in New York, the execution of someone named William Kemmler, was also botched in a rather gruesome way.

What is the more humane execution method: electrocution or lethal injection?

That is the wrong question. It assumes that it is possible to ensure that an execution will not be botched. I’ve studied every execution between 1890 and 2010 to determine how reliable, safe and humane the methods have been. If you look at every execution over that period of time, approximately 3 percent of executions were botched. If you look at just lethal injection, slightly more than 7 percent in the United States has been botched. In every turn, as we’ve thought about the methods by which we put people to death, the same promises have been made. Go back to the nineteenth century and you look at what proponents of the electric chair said. They said it’d be safe, reliable and humane. If you move forward in the early twentieth century when the gas chamber was authorized and first used in Nevada, proponents of the gas chamber said it would be safe, reliable and humane. If you fast forward to the late 1970s, when Oklahoma became the first state to authorize death by lethal injection, the proponents of lethal injection said it would be safe, reliable and humane. So, I don’t think we’ve found, or are likely to find, a method of execution in which the technology will ensure us that things won’t go wrong. We know that failures will happen. We don’t know when. We can’t predict them, necessarily. What has happened is botched executions are regarded as mere accidents. But if we look at a broader picture of these “mere accidents,” we see that they happen with unnerving frequency.

Tennessee’s effort to bring back the electric chair seems like an act of desperation. What’s going on here?

What’s happening in Tennessee has to be seen in the broad context of what’s happening with the death penalty in the United States. We’re in a period of national reconsideration of capital punishment in this country. We’re in a period where proponents of capital punishment are on the defensive. If you go back to the late ’90s, about 300 people a year were being sentenced to death. That number has been cut by almost two-thirds. Increasingly, Americans look at the death penalty not as an abstract moral question but as a question about whether the death penalty system actually works. We’re increasing our doubts about the capacity to differentiate the guilty from the innocent, our capacity to determine who among the guilty actually deserves the death penalty, and now our capacity to execute those who we determine to die in a way that is compatible with the Eighth Amendment’s commitment that punishment should not be cruel.

What Tennessee is doing is a further symptom of a death penalty system in disarray. After all, the legitimacy of the death penalty in the United States has, over the course of the last century, depended on the promise of scientific progress, such that we could find a method of execution that would be safe, reliable and humane. Going backwards, it seems to me, will further unravel and discredit the system of capital punishment in the United States. Were Tennessee carry out an electrocution, they would be running the risk that execution would be botched in ways that are even more gruesome than what happened in Oklahoma.

This bill would allow the corrections department to force electrocution on the condemned. Do you think this would fly legally?

More than twenty years ago, in the face of a series of botched executions in Florida, a constitutional challenge was brought to the US Supreme Court alleging that electrocution should be declared unconstitutional. So concerned were public officials in Florida that the Supreme Court would strike down the electric chair, that the state enacted a bill to change its primary method of execution to lethal injection. I think that if the state of Tennessee went forward with a series of electrocutions, there would be a series of legal challenges, which would have a very substantial prospect of prevailing. Nebraska’s Supreme Court, some years ago, declared electrocution to be unconstitutional. If electrocution were to be used, it would actually damage the prospect of survival in the United States.

Will America ever abolish the death penalty?

We’re already on the road to abolition. This period of national reconsideration has refocused the attention of Americans on the death penalty. It’s changed the question. The question used to be focused on the condemned, those we punish. Today, the question is, “Can we impose death penalty in a way that doesn’t damage central American values?” After all, you can be favor of the death penalty in the abstract, but be reluctant to execute the innocent. You can be in favor of the death penalty in the abstract, but be reluctant to impose it because of the race of the offender or race of the victim. You can be in favor of the death penalty in the abstract, but appalled at how costly it is to carry it out. You can be in favor of the death penalty in the abstract, and be repulsed by the idea that when we put someone to death, we can’t do it in a way that is humane. I think abolition will happen in the United States. It will happen slowly, and not without some reversals—a kind of two-steps-forward-and-one-step-back process.

Ohio Will Stop Using Solitary Confinement to Punish Kids

Ohio juvenile

A juvenile offender mops the floor during his work program at Circleville Youth Center in Ohio. (AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato)

In a historic settlement, Ohio’s juvenile corrections agency agreed to “dramatically reduce, and eventually eliminate” the use of disciplinary solitary confinement in youth prisons.

The agreement—between the US Department of Justice and Ohio’s Department of Youth Services (DYS)—represents the first federal-level move to end disciplinary seclusion at juvenile facilities. The court order compels Ohio corrections officials to provide medical treatment to juveniles with mental health needs, rather than isolating them.

Wednesday’s settlement comes off the heels of an announcement last week by Attorney General Eric Holder calling for an end to the “excessive” use of seclusion on juvenile inmates, especially on children with mental health needs.

“This agreement will help ensure that incarceration in Ohio’s state facilities is humane and that appropriate treatment is provided for young people with mental illness,” Attorney General Eric Holder said in a statement. “The Justice Department will continue to evaluate the use of solitary confinement so that it does not become a new normal for incarcerated juveniles.”

Human rights groups have long contended that solitary confinement can cause serious psychological and developmental harm, especially in children and people with mental illness. Amy Fettig, senior staff counsel of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the Ohio settlement shows that the nation might finally be waking up to that fact.

“It is a nationwide signal that what once was a routine practice is no longer acceptable to the Department of Justice under the law,” Amy Fettig told The Nation. “This is an important first step. Ohio is the first state, but it certainly isn’t going to be the last.”

The DOJ first investigated Ohio juvenile facilities in 2007, finding “constitutional deficiencies in the state’s use of physical force, mental health care, grievance investigation and processing and use of seclusion.” Ohio DYS entered into consent decrees in 2008 with the DOJ and private plaintiffs to stop the unlawful seclusion of juvenile inmates.

But a review of data in 2013 found that the state continued to routinely isolate youth battling mental health problems. In the second half of 2013 alone, Ohio DYS secluded 229 boys with mental health needs for almost 60,000 hours total.

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A 2012 study by the Justice Department’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention found that more than one-third of youth in custody have reported being isolated at some point. Of those, fifty-five percent said they were isolated for more than twenty-four hours. The majority of those isolated said they had never talked with a counselor since arriving at their facility.


Read Next: Eric Holder blasts the “excessive” use of solitary confinement in juvenile facilities.

UPDATE: US Supreme Court Halts Execution of Russell Bucklew

Russell Bucklew

Russell Bucklew (AP Images/Missouri Department of Corrections)

UPDATE (5/22/2014 10:15 am): The US Supreme Court on Wednesday indefinitely stayed the execution of Missouri death row prisoner Russell Bucklew, permitting an appeal in a lower court to go forward. "As a panel of the Eighth Circuit recognized, Mr. Bucklew presented strong medical evidence—that the Missouri Department of Corrections failed to contest—showing the likelihood of unnecessary pain and suffering beyond what is constitutionally permissible," said Cheryl Pilate, on of Bucklew's attorneys, in a statement. "Today's stay of execution will give the lower federal courts time to consider Mr. Bucklew's claim that his execution would violate his rights under the Eighth Amendment to be free from cruel and unusual punishment."


UPDATE (5/21/2014, 12:06 am): There’s been a dramatic turn of events in the past hour, culminating in Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito’s granting a temporary stay of execution for Missouri death row prisoner Russell Bucklew. As CBS’s Andrew Cohen first reported, the US Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit voted seven-to-four to dissolve its stay of execution for Russell Bucklew less than two hours before his scheduled lethal injection on Wednesday, 12:01 am Central Time. Only three judges voted in the court’s previous ruling. Minutes after the appellate court’s decision, Justice Alito temporarily halted Bucklew’s execution, pending arguments from the state and defense. “It is ordered that execution of the sentence of death is hereby stayed pending further order of the undersigned or of the Court,” Alito wrote.

* * *

A federal appeals court halted the execution of a Missouri death row prisoner on Tuesday, just hours before he was scheduled to die.

Attorneys for convicted murderer and rapist Russell Bucklew, 46, argued that proceeding with the execution would put him at great risk of experiencing “excruciating” pain, due to a rare birth defect that causes vascular tumors to grow on his face and neck. He was scheduled for lethal injection on Wednesday at 12:01 am.

“We are deeply relieved that the panel of the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals has granted a stay of execution for Russell Bucklew, who faced substantial risk of a prolonged, tortuous execution tonight due to his rare and serious medical condition,” said Cheryl Pilate, one of Bucklew’s attorneys, in a statement.

In a two-to-one ruling, the US Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit delayed Bucklew’s execution for sixty days.

“Bucklew’s unrebutted medical evidence demonstrates the requisite sufficient likelihood of unnecessary pain and suffering beyond the constitutionally permissible amount inherent in all executions,” judges Michael Melloy and Kermit Bye wrote in their ruling.

Bucklew suffers from a rare condition called cavernous hemangioma, which has caused him a lifetime of facial hemorrhaging. Dr. David Zivot, professor of Anesthesiology at Emory University, physically examined Bucklew earlier this month, and concluded that his condition would put him at risk of a “prolonged and extremely painful execution.” Zivot specified that tumors on Bucklew’s face and neck, symptomatic of his condition, could cause him to hemorrhage or gasp for air during a lethal injection. Two other physicians submitted affidavits supporting these claims.

The eleventh-hour order reverses a district court ruling, which argued that Bucklew should present an alternative method of execution if he believed that lethal injection would subject him to unconstitutional pain. The conservative Eighth Court of Appeals noted that Missouri had repeatedly refused to grant Bucklew a medical examination. Bucklew’s attorneys, who are representing him pro bono, paid Dr. Zivot to physically examine their client.

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