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The Lost Boys

What happens when you put juvenile prisoners in an adult isolation lockup?

| Thu Mar. 25, 2010 5:27 AM EDT

Editor's Note: Last November, the Department of Justice released the results of a federal probe into conditions at Westchester County Jail, a 1,693-bed adult facility in Valhalla, New York. Among the litany of problems investigators cited was the ease with which jail officials seemed willing to toss juvenile inmates into Westchester's so-called special housing unit. They found that half of the inmates recently consigned to the SHU were 16 to 18 years old, and many were doing stints of a year or more in isolation. One 16-year-old got 510 days for assaulting a guard. Another teen, an 18-year-old, was simply thrown in the SHU indefinitely. "Such sentences," the report noted, "may inflict substantial psychological harm" on juveniles.

For author David Chura, the findings were no revelation. Chura had served his own 10-year sentence at Westchester as a high-school English teacher, schooling young inmates under the most difficult circumstances. He chronicles these experiences in I Don't Wish Nobody to Have a Life Like Mine: Tales of Kids in Adult Lockup, out this month from Beacon Press. In this excerpt, Chura recalls his first glimpse of the special housing unit, and how first impressions can be deceiving. —Michael Mechanic

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(The following excerpt adapted by permission of Beacon Press. Copyright 2010 by David Chura.)

The only thing missing was the ribbon cutting. Other than that, our first glimpse of the Westchester County Jail's special housing unit—its gleaming new isolation block—had all the trappings of a grand-opening celebration. There were the distinguished guests, the fancy pastries, the bottled water, and freshly brewed coffee.

The county exec was saving the whole ribbon routine for the media, and we were just a bunch of civilians—medical staff, teachers, and clergy who toiled at the older facility.

"I hate civilians!" Warden Clooney had barked during an orientation session on the first day of my 10-year stint teaching young men locked up for everything from trespassing to murder.

These weren't just "at risk" kids. They were the risk. To themselves, their families, their girlfriends, their enemies, the towns they lived in—to the whole goddamn society. At least, that was Warden Clooney's take. "Human garbage," he reminded us repeatedly. And he could say whatever he pleased: "I'm finally retiring after thirty years, getting out of this shit hole."

Indeed. It was Warden Root, one of Clooney's successors, who presided over our tour of the isolation unit. Root, the man in charge of the new construction, was young for his title, and he didn't take most things too seriously. But he was dead serious about the SHU.

Around a large mahogany conference table, we were treated to back-slapping speeches, charts, and color-coded graphs, as well as a publicity folder in which we read that the SHU was built specifically to handle the most dangerous and disruptive inmates. Everything was designed, we were told, to ensure their safety—and ours. "People will be coming from all over the country to see what we've done here," he told us, suddenly solemn.

As we followed Warden Root down the penitentiary hallway, we cracked jokes about how we looked—and felt—in our obligatory hard hats, laughably mislabeled "one size fits all." The nurses complained that the yellow helmets clashed with their colored smocks, and we teachers quipped that we might be needing them in class. Father Gabe, one of the prison chaplains, confessed that he kind of liked his—it made him feel like Father Mulcahy from M*A*S*H*.

We grew louder and sillier than we ever would think of being during our regular workday. But once we made it past the SHU's first security gate, waiting in the sally port for the other door to open, we fell silent. The light was muted, the walls were freshly painted a pastel blue, and the air was cool and clean. Slowly, we could feel the noise, tension, and chaos of the rest of the jail slipping away.

When the second glass-and-metal door slid open, we stepped into a hallway next to a high-tech control desk and stared down two long, cell-lined corridors at right angles to each other. The cement-block walls were a smoky gray, the tiled floors glossy with wax, the lights recessed and fluorescent. And even though the block was unoccupied, no one spoke above a whisper.

"The hallways are also equipped with cameras and wired for sound," the warden quipped. "So watch what you say."

Conspicuously absent were the constant clankings and gratings of the main jail's barred gates and nerve-jangling PA system, with its nonsensical announcements and static feedback. If you held your breath, which the place made you want to do so as not to disturb things, you could hear the faint swish, swish, swish of an ultramodern air system.

"Each cell is monitored visually here on this panel," said Warden Root, pointing to the control desk's glowing mini-screens. Inmates could communicate with the officer on duty via intercom.

"The hallways are also equipped with cameras and wired for sound." Root pointed to various corners and ceiling openings. "So watch what you say," he added, impishly.

The cells were positioned so that inmates couldn't see each other, and the glass fronting each cubicle was as thick as the maroon steel beams that framed it. Each door had a slot for food trays, but even that had a hinged metal flap lockable from the outside.

"Any of you who've worked in the old jail, especially with the minors, know the different kinds of mischief inmates can get into," Warden Root explained, unlocking a cell door. "You know the type of thing I'm talking about: the stuffed-up toilets, the faucets going full blast so the block gets flooded. Hitting each other with telephone receivers. Taking the showerheads apart and using the metal pieces for weapons." It was a litany we'd heard before.

"Not to mention what they do with their feces." He screwed up his face like a parent changing a messy diaper. "We've addressed all those safety and security issues here."

"An inmate never needs to leave his cell...He eats, showers, sleeps, and does the other s-word right here."

Root swept his arm across the cubicle like a real estate agent. "An inmate never needs to leave his cell except for visits and court. And even then his arms and legs are shackled, and he's escorted by two officers. He eats, showers, sleeps, and does the other s word right here.

"The showerhead is set into the wall so there's nothing to take apart," he said, running his hand over the smooth surface. "His shower is turned on and off by the officer at the control desk, and his toilet is flushed the same way.

"Each cell is equipped with a phone. That way an inmate doesn't have to leave the holding area to make legal or personal calls."

Here the warden paused and watched us scan for signs of a telephone. He smiled, pleased with himself. Then he moved over to the wall at the foot of the bed and pointed to two small grates flush against the concrete. "One's an earpiece, the other's the mouthpiece. Simple, eh?

"Numbers are dialed by the officer and calls are terminated by the officer."

He shrugged. "Sometimes you got to do that, help a guy out of a tight situation by hanging up the phone for him when he's getting all crazy with his girlfriend, or his moms, or his lawyer."

Root moved along to a sliding metal door in the cell wall. "As you all know, state regs mandate that a detainee must have at least one hour of rec per day," he said. "But the SHU inmates are lucky. They can have as much rec as they want."

The rec room was entirely empty: no equipment, no workout mat—just a concrete floor.

He pressed the cell's intercom button and the door clanked open. The adjoining cubicle was no bigger than the inmate's living quarters, but it seemed that way without the standard sleeping pallet, sink, toilet, and shower cubicle. The rec room, in fact, was entirely empty: no equipment, no workout mat—just a concrete floor.

You couldn't see much through its mesh-covered windows. Not that there was much to see: some high-tension power lines and a torn-up field. But there was a grate at the top of the wall that opened to the sky; its sunlight and fresh air provided a semblance of freedom.

"Any questions?" The warden scanned the group.

No one said anything, so we all moved out of the cell and toward the exit. The warden shook each of our hands as we left. "Come back and see us real soon," he quipped.

After the tour, I had a hard time thinking of the SHU as a punishment. On the regular cell blocks, the noise and smell were assaultive and relentless. As soon as you walked through the door, it hit you, and there wasn't any escaping it: Two televisions booming—one in English, the other in Spanish. People yelling down from the tier. Someone hollering into a phone, shouting for everybody to shut the fuck up because he couldn't hear. The security phone ringing. The CO bellowing out names for sick call, visits, haircuts. Showers hissing and toilets gurgling.

And it stank. Forty male bodies sleeping in bunks three feet apart can't help but smell of sweat, shit, piss, sex, and bad breath. And all the meals, no matter what was served, smelled of rancid meat and overripe fruit.

My guys in the SHU did something they rarely did in class: They listened. They attended to what I said. They looked at me intently.

So somehow the quiet, the peace of having a cell all to yourself; air scrubbed clean by filters; floors polished; walls freshly painted; everything pristine; the sunlight penetrating your space in a system where usually nothing is "yours" and "space" only exists in your head—all of these things, it seemed to me, made the SHU appealing. It was where you would want to be, not a place the emergency response team would have to drag you into.

The first few times I visited students there—back when the SHU was still the object of pride and curiosity, even among inmates—things were clean, calm, and serene. Even Officer Saner, the CO assigned to the new post, was on his best behavior.

Usually, Saner held everyone in contempt. It didn't matter who you were or what your rank: Inmates, civilians, other COs, sergeants, captains, the occasional warden—we were all the same to him. His disdain permanently curled his lips into a sneer, and his shaved head made him look even more imperious than he was.

But even he was under the spell of the new furniture, the high-tech equipment, and the fancy gadgets. He'd stand up when you came into the unit, greet you, and ask how he could help.

The kids I visited there went through their own transformation. They kept their cells neat. They made their beds, sheets tight and crisp. They stacked their books and magazines neatly on the high windowsills and stored their rolled up towels next to the books.

My students appreciated my visits and the materials I brought. They'd ask how I was, how class was going, how officers Ramos and O'Shay were doing. They'd thank me for coming, and hoped I'd visit again soon.

And I did, as often as I could. At the end of my own chaotic day in the classroom, I'd scoop up whatever magazines I had around—National Geographic, Junior Scholastic, Science Today—and head out to the SHU. I could feel myself decompress as I waited in the sally port.

My guys in the SHU didn't curse or shout or rap incessantly as they did in class. Instead, they were soft-spoken. And they did something they rarely did in the classroom: They listened. They attended to what I said. They looked at me intently, as though they were reading my lips. And when it was time for me to go, they'd press their faces at odd angles against the glass so they could follow me down the hallway with their eyes.

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