So this article from the Village Voice made my skin crawl (warning for extremely graphic images of open wounds).
Basically, the article discusses the endemic and growing problem of violence in the juvenile wards at Rikers Island. Gangs of teenagers engage in multi-person fights, often with weapons, in order to establish a system of control of privileges such as phone access, food, and control of the television. Let me repeat that; CHILDREN are cutting each other up for access to the TV. And it appears, based on the Voice report, that prison employees are systematically downplaying the prevalence that these fights have in the juvenile population. In some cases, it appears that guards may have been encouraging these fights or using them as a means of population control.
Western culture often sees men with criminal records as less than human. These young men are seen as “getting what is coming to them,” as brutality, injury, and even rape are seen as natural consequences of breaking the law in the United States. But here’s the thing. These inmates are children. While they are serving out their sentence, the government has a responsibility to them (as it supposedly does to all prisoners) to protect bodily integrity and keep them from harm.
I am especially troubled by the overwhelming prevalence of young men of color in these pictures. Since New York City’s stop and frisk laws overwhelmingly target people of color, and, in fact, stops and frisks more young black and Latino men and teenagers than there are black and Latino young men in New York, this points to a disturbing trend wherein these young men are disproportionately arrested, and then brutalized within the penal system.
I am a religious Jew, and my sense of faith leaves me especially sickened by these images. The rabbis taught that one must be exceptionally careful when handing down capital cases, to the point that one prominent rabbi said that a court which put a person to death once every 70 years was exceptionally bloodthirsty. While we are not killing these boys outright, we are sending them into custody where they are brutalized, attacked, and deprived of opportunities to make a better life for themselves upon release. We are using the prison system to destroy the lives of minors, and as a feeling person, I don’t know what the words are to express my sorrow. My heart goes out to them and to their families.