Sun Investigates

Juveniles in Maryland's justice system are routinely strip-searched and shackled

Juveniles in Maryland's justice system are routinely strip searched and shackled.

The Baltimore girl, 15, stood in front of the judge that spring day two years ago. She'd stolen toilet paper, laundry detergent and clothes because her grandmother was sick and they had little money. The judge said it was time for the serial shoplifter to learn a lesson.

He ordered a weekend stay at one of the state's juvenile detention centers — where she would be subjected to two increasingly controversial practices.

First, the courthouse guards shackled her with several pounds of metal that bound her ankles and connected her handcuffs to a chain around her belly. She fell to her knees as she attempted to hoist herself in the transport van.

When they arrived at the detention center, a guard surprised the girl with an order: Take off your clothes. It was a strip search, and the first time a stranger had seen her naked. She was as scared as she was exposed.

Like thousands of youths detained in the state's juvenile justice system, she experienced the same shackling and strip search practices as an adult convicted of murder. While state officials say they need to ensure safety, there is a growing movement nationwide to curb the widespread use of these methods, which medical and legal experts say are humiliating, traumatizing and often unnecessary with juveniles.

"What we're doing," said Melanie D. Shapiro, chief attorney for the public defender's juvenile court division in Baltimore City, "is treating them like hardened criminals."

The practices continue in Maryland's juvenile system despite efforts to end them. For years the state's Juvenile Justice Monitoring Unit, an independent agency in the state attorney general's office, has called on the Department of Juvenile Services to stop the indiscriminate use of strip searches and shackling.

Juveniles have been routinely shackled in Baltimore City courts, even though a statewide judicial resolution called on judges to stop the practice unless there are safety concerns. With adults in most cases, the Supreme Court has ruled that shackling them in court violates their civil rights.

Measures to reform strip searches and shackling of juveniles have led to showdowns at the State House and courthouse. Some state lawmakers are seeking to restrict both practices, while public defenders have launched a coordinated legal effort to fight the shackling of juveniles in city court.

Public defenders, child advocates and mental health experts say the juveniles, most of whom have already experienced trauma, are further traumatized by strip searches and shackling. Critics contend that both tactics rob them of their constitutional rights to due process and privacy, and undermine the very goal of the juvenile system — to rehabilitate youths.

"I felt violated," the Baltimore girl, now 17, said of her experience, wrapping her arms around herself. "It made me feel like I did something wrong — I mean I did — but like I hurt somebody bad."

Officials at Maryland's Department of Juvenile Services say they need to strip search and shackle those in their care to keep everyone safe. In fact, Juvenile Services Secretary Sam J. Abed has expanded the use of strip searches. It now happens after every visit with the public — including with lawyers and supervised family visits. Before, the youths were simply being patted down.

Officials point to two escape attempts and the murder of a teacher in a facility in the past six years, and they maintain that searches and shackles have helped to prevent the facilities from devolving into the violence and chaos that used to plague the system, until the U.S. Department of Justice intervened in 2005.

"For us, this is a life-and-death issue," said Jay Cleary, Abed's chief of staff, pointing out that some of the facilities are in residential communities. "We have very little margin for error."

Under the current policy, these practices apply to every youth, many of whom are detained briefly, often for low-level offenses. The policies also apply to juveniles who have not gone to court yet, and who could be found to have done nothing wrong.

The Department of Juvenile Services declined to make its full policies publicly available, citing security. The Baltimore Sun obtained the policies from sources to detail how the practices are carried out.

The attorney general's Juvenile Justice Monitoring Unit has been documenting cases over the past three years in which youths have been subjected to the practices, even when, by the state agency's own standards, the juveniles pose little to no risk.

In one photograph, a young woman who was about to successfully complete her treatment program at J. DeWeese Carter Youth Facility was shown shackled in a dentist chair, where she remained bound throughout her entire exam. According to monitors, cuff marks were visible on her wrists from her transport to the dentist office.

Another photo showed two girls being shackled as they prepared to travel to take their GED exam. Yet they had been considered so "low-risk" that they had earned weekend passes for good behavior.

The unit's most recent report shows a staff member in a Santa hat shackling a girl at Carter. She'd earned a home pass to celebrate Christmas, but her family was not able to pick her up, so she had to be taken home in chains, by a Department of Juvenile Services staff member.

That report, released a few weeks ago, also revealed how liberally strip searches are used. After a teacher lost her building key, guards, attempting to find it, strip-searched dozens of young men at one institution. The key was later found in a staff room.

"We shouldn't be further traumatizing kids unnecessarily, without any particular and individualized reasons," said the unit's director, Nick Moroney. He said these practices should be limited to times children are physically acting out, or somehow show a risk of harming themselves or someone else.

Most vulnerable kids

The issue comes against a backdrop of a national debate over reforming policing and the criminal justice system.

In a shift to a less punitive approach, President Barack Obama recently ordered a stop to solitary confinement of juveniles in the federal prison system. In Maryland, lawmakers in the General Assembly are considering bills that would limit life-without-parole sentences for juveniles and make it more difficult to charge them as adults. Another bill would increase funding and accountability in the education system for the state's juvenile offender population.

The juvenile system is designed to be different from the adult one. Under the law, youths in the juvenile justice system are guaranteed rights that adults don't have: to education, rehabilitation and treatment programs. Also, the children are not found guilty of a crime, but instead are ruled delinquent.

An assistant public defender in Baltimore, David Shapiro, who recently joined the office after leading a national campaign against courtroom shackling of juveniles, noted that the nature of the system could allow abuses.

"The juvenile system is confidential, and that's a great thing. But because of that, some of the issues they face are swept under the rug, whereas for adults they're out in the open," Shapiro said.

The Baltimore Sun does not name juvenile offenders; the youths interviewed for this article asked to remain anonymous because they feared their record could hurt their chances of getting back on track.

At stake in the juvenile justice system are the futures of thousands of young people who, research shows, are at high risk of landing in adult prisons.

Statewide, roughly 4,300 youths cycled through the juvenile justice detention system last year. Of those later found delinquent, nearly 70 percent are nonviolent, according to Department of Juvenile Services data. The two most common offenses for youths placed in facilities are second-degree assault — mostly fights — and theft. More than half of the juveniles in the system are considered to be at low to moderate risk of rearrest.

Experts describe kids in the juvenile justice system as among the most vulnerable, at-risk youths in the country. National studies show that nearly all of the youths in the juvenile system have experienced trauma, and that nearly two-thirds of young men in the system and three-quarters of young women meet the criteria for one or more psychiatric disorders.

In Maryland, a study by the department in 2012 found that 46 percent of girls placed in facilities had a history of physical or sexual abuse.

Others point out that the policies disproportionately affect African-American young men, like so many other parts of the criminal justice system. The overwhelming majority of teenage boys in the state's 14 juvenile facilities are black.

The Maryland chapter of the NAACP, which has filed a federal civil rights complaint alleging incarcerated youths aren't receiving a proper education, said that strip-and-shackle policies are just one more example of how black youths' rights are being violated by the juvenile justice system.

"These practices go back to slavery time," said Wandra Ashley-Williams, the chapter's vice president. "It's about stripping them of respect. And they do become angry. They don't see any hope or future, because this is what they know, and it's a bad model."

Juvenile shackling

Shackling of juveniles became commonplace in the 1980s, attorneys say, during a period when the prevailing culture was tough on crime.

The complete set-up of chains can weigh eight to 25 pounds. Security staff is required to put shackles on the youth's lower legs, near the ankles. Those cuffs are linked with a chain.

The guards also lock the youth's wrists in handcuffs and then attach those cuffs to a chain draped around the youth's waist. That is then sealed off with a black box and heavy padlock.

"They feel like fire, like someone put hot metal into your skin. Even when they aren't tight, they hurt when you walk," recalled a 19-year-old interviewed by The Sun about his experience before a Baltimore City judge as a juvenile for a robbery charge. He was with a group of boys when one of them stole a cellphone.

Per Department of Juvenile Services policy, youths must be shackled any time they are transported by staff, including to medical appointments. There is an exception for youths placed in lower-level security facilities, such as the small camps in Western Maryland. Juveniles can also be shackled if there is a disturbance inside a facility.

"We have youth being transported all over the state, every single day," Cleary said. "The community is counting on us to keep them safe and keep the youth safe."

For years, youths have also been shackled in the courtroom.

In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court stopped that practice in court for adults, ruling that shackling adults who posed no flight or safety risks violated their due process rights, because they could appear guilty before a jury or judge.

Since then, 23 states have followed suit for children, either by laws or binding court resolutions. The measures have been championed by the National Juvenile Defender Center an advocacy group that led a campaign against indiscriminate juvenile shackling.

The group says juveniles are no more likely to be aggressive or attempt to escape in states that no longer routinely shackle them.

"Many states are riding the wave, understanding that this is the right side of history to be on," said Christina Gilbert, who heads the campaign.

Following the lead of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, Maryland's highest court passed a voluntary resolution in September to curtail the shackling of juveniles in court.

Though the resolution still gave juvenile judges ultimate discretion, it stated that the default should be to unshackle juveniles, as "placing children in shackles can be traumatizing and contrary to the developmentally appropriate approach to juvenile justice."

In the six months since its passage, while most jurisdictions have begun unshackling most youths without problem, public defenders say that Baltimore City's juvenile judges are still routinely shackling juveniles.

Paul DeWolfe, public defender for the state of Maryland, decided to fight it. He said his attorneys in the city are arguing every day to have their clients unshackled. "If you go to juvenile court, day in and day out, you see children and families, and it's obvious that this is not necessary," he said.

The public defenders argue that being chained makes the youths appear guilty before the witnesses and others in the courtroom. Even judges who hear juvenile cases can be affected by the image.

"We all have implicit biases," said Melanie Shapiro, head of the city's juvenile public defender office. "Because of these biases, when a child is brought before the court in chains, he looks more guilty and dangerous. Even if it's subconsciously."

The attorneys say the shackling also hampers the youths' ability to help with their defense, as they are often preoccupied and uncomfortable in the cuffs and metal chains.

"You got your feet and your hands shackled like you're a cold-blooded killer," said the young man interviewed by The Sun. "When people in the court see that … and you gotta go in front of a judge like that. … You feel like you don't even have a fighting chance in the courtroom."

DeWolfe's office has begun filing appeals in cases in which a youth remains shackled for no specific reason. One has reached the second-highest court in Maryland, the Court of Special Appeals.

In that case of a juvenile charged with theft, Assistant Public Defender Jeremy Zacker said he wanted his client unshackled, citing a practical reason: He wanted him to take notes. "You're restricting his right to effectively assist in his own counsel," Zacker told the magistrate, according to a transcript.

The magistrate disagreed and suggested that the attorney put a notepad in the juvenile's lap and a coat over his shackled wrists so that witnesses wouldn't see them.

In Montgomery County, where they now routinely unshackle juveniles without problem, public defender Mary Siegfried sees a change in the kids. "They're more confident when they're asked a question and speak to judges. Their body language is different, not just because they're not in shackles …. but because it doesn't seem like a foregone conclusion that they're going to walk out in them."

Judge Robert Kershaw, who heads the juvenile courts in Baltimore City, said he personally believes that courtroom shackling of juveniles is "sickening."

But he did say that the public defenders' expectations are unrealistic. He noted that youths can become upset in juvenile court, and it's happened enough that judges have to be vigilant. It's the judge's job to keep the courtroom safe, he said.

"When they got the resolution, they believed all of the shackles would be put on a truck and never seen again," Kershaw said. "In a perfect world, that would be case. It's not that simple."

But a week ago, as The Sun posed questions to the court, Kershaw issued an order to give city judges more guidance on when they should unshackle.

Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh was surprised and outraged to learn that shackling is still routine practice for kids. He noted that he recently attended a murder trial where an alleged gang hit man not only appeared unshackled, but also approached the judge's bench with his lawyer.

"If we don't need an accused gang hit man shackled in court — an adult — then we don't need juveniles shackled in court either," Frosh said. "When you don't treat adults that way, it seems to me indisputable you shouldn't treat children that way."

He hopes that lawmakers don't have to get involved in judicial affairs, but said that he would support legislation that stopped the practice of unnecessarily shackling juveniles in courtrooms.

Legislative and legal efforts

Officials with the Department of Juvenile Services said that its shackling policy and strip search policy are considered best practices by the American Correctional Association.

Cleary rejected the characterization of the policies as "indiscriminate," noting that the department has specific guidelines.

Abed, who has led the department since 2011, did change the department's shackling policy to limit the use of restraints on detained girls who are in their third trimester of pregnancy. He also amended the policy to comply with federal law by requiring that strip searches be conducted by two staff members of the same gender as the youth.

Public defenders and child advocates want further reforms. They say the department should follow best practices formulated by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a child advocacy nonprofit.

In Maryland, legislation filed in this year's General Assembly called for the department to limit the use of shackling and restraining, including when youths are transported, unless there was a particular security threat. The legislation also sought to ban strip searches for youths.

"They are children, and these policies have nothing to do with any particular risk from a child," said Sen. Delores Kelley, a Baltimore County Democrat who filed the bill. "If you were to look at ... 'cruel and unusual punishment,' this is it."

Kelley reluctantly withdrew the bill after it received vehement opposition from Abed, whose support she wanted for other juvenile justice-related bills. It also failed to garner any sponsors in the House of Delegates.

Abed declined to be interviewed for this article, but his chief of staff said the bill would make facilities more dangerous.

Then last month, Sen. C. Anthony Muse, a Prince George's County Democrat, filed a similar bill to restrict shackling and strip searches, stopping short of a ban on strip searches. A version of his bill has been filed in the House, and a Senate hearing is scheduled for Wednesday.

Meanwhile, the strip search issue is being litigated in courts.

Individual cases have been working their way through state courts, and a coalition of 17 advocacy groups, including the high-profile Juvenile Law Center in Pennsylvania, has asked the Supreme Court to review a case.

In that case, a 12-year-old boy was strip-searched upon entering a juvenile facility. While the Supreme Court narrowly ruled such searches are constitutional for adults when arrested and jailed, the court has not ruled on the question for the juvenile system.

However, the boy's attorneys argue that the court has found strip searches of youths in other settings, such as schools, to be unreasonable without strong evidence. They also note that the court has found the searches can cause serious emotional damage in school-age children.

Strip searches

In Maryland, youths are strip-searched whenever they are admitted into facilities.

The child must be completely disrobed, and the searches include an examination of the "youth's anatomy, which may include head, hair, mouth, torso, pelvic area, legs and feet."

To ensure that the contraband is not hidden, staff are to request that youth place their legs at a 15-degree angle or take a parade-rest military stance and raise their arms during visual inspection. The juveniles said a supervised shower follows the inspection at intake.

Youths interviewed by The Sun say that the strip searches only last a minute but feel like forever. They said some staff members try to make them feel at ease, explaining that they have to do it and want it done as quickly as the youth do.

The 17-year-old girl who was strip-searched for the weekend stay said she avoided eye contact with a staff member who conducted her search.

"I didn't want to look at her," she said. "Violated is people seeing something that you don't want them to see. Even though it was allowed, still — she seen me."

The policy states that at no time should the staff members touch the youths. At one point in the process, youths are ordered to squat and cough, in case they are hiding something. If guards determine a body cavity needs to be searched, it is supposed to be done by a medical professional.

Cleary said there are consequences for staff members and youths who don't agree to the strip searches. Staff members are disciplined; youths are secluded from the general population.

"Strip searches are uncomfortable for everyone involved," said Cleary, Abed's chief of staff. But, he added: "There is no ... adequate substitute for a strip search."

One youth who spent a few years in the system said that strip searches are used as retaliation, which violates the department's policy. For example, he said, a guard can do a strip search to make an example of a juvenile, or kids can accuse each other of having contraband so they would have be strip-searched. In those cases, explained the youth, it's announced that the strip search is about to take place.

"You're telling the whole tier that another man about to go strip this man," the teen said. "He has to come back to this tier and sleep. That don't fly too well when you're in there."

Cleary said that juveniles can file a grievance if they feel staff members are abusing the strip-search practice.

The most recent juvenile monitoring report noted an incident in which a strip search turned violent. A youth alleged that a staff member punched and choked him while conducting a strip search in the facility bathroom. The staff member was removed from contact with children while an investigation is underway.

Two years ago, Abed expanded the policy to require that youths be strip-searched after visits with the public.

That means that, if a youth has earned an outing for good behavior, the juvenile still needs to be subjected to a strip search upon return. A court date and family visit in the same day would mean multiple strip searches.

Public defenders said some of their clients declined visits from their mothers to avoid the follow-up strip search.

The practice is jarring to lawyers who say they are now forced to weigh whether to meet with a client to discuss the case, or skip it knowing that the visit could mean a strip search. They question the necessity, saying they have to go through several security screenings, including metal detectors, before they visit their clients. Talking face-to-face to clients can be invaluable, especially as phone calls in facilities are monitored, attorneys noted.

"I am constantly in the position to make a decision: What is the greater harm?" said Melanie Shapiro, the chief public defender in Baltimore City. "And that's offensive."

Emotional impact on kids

Child psychiatrists say that strip-searching and shackling youths can have a lasting mental impact.

The practices can lead to post-traumatic stress, anxiety and mood disorders. In the most extreme cases, experts say that overly punitive methods such as shackling and strip-searching can lead to deep depression and even suicide.

"It's not only a demeaning process, it's also an unfair restriction of human rights and basic dignity that occurs here," said Dr. Louis Kraus, a child psychiatrist who evaluated Maryland's juvenile justice mental health services when the Justice Department had oversight over the state system.

Kraus is a member of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, which, along with the American Bar Association and other groups, has denounced the practice of indiscriminate shackling as unconscionable and unconstitutional.

He said that staff in the juvenile justice system should be trained to evaluate whether or not youths pose risks that require them to be restrained.

"When dogs have muzzles put on them, they're assessed first," he said. "They're not even doing this for these kids."

Kraus said policies like Maryland's on strip searching and shackling can exacerbate whatever trauma and behaviors led kids into the juvenile justice system in the first place — and increase the likelihood that they will get into trouble again.

"You make them into little criminals, instead of kids who can be helped, and that's what they're going to be," he said. "You're going to worsen pathology that already exists."

A few years after spending roughly two weeks in the Baltimore Juvenile Justice Center, nicknamed "Baby Booking," one Baltimore teenager still remembers every detail: the hard bench that pressed into his spine, the smell of urine that filled his nostrils, his wrists inflamed for a few days from the handcuffs, how cold his skin was during the strip search.

"You still think about it every day," said the 19-year-old, who has since graduated from high school, earned an associate's degree and now works two jobs. "How you was locked up, how you was taken away from your family, how you was made to be out something that you aren't."

He doesn't have to go back, but the 17-year-old girl who stole the food and clothes is again facing juvenile court. Over the holidays, she shoplifted toddler clothes from The Gap for her niece's Christmas present.

Now a senior at an alternative high school, she recently got a job, and her grandmother is back to work part-time, so she says she doesn't need to steal anymore. She just got her senior portrait taken, and she has glimpsed another self.

So even as she is haunted by feeling bound in the heavy chains and terrified of strangers staring at her naked body, she tries hard not to think about facing that again. Instead, she likes to envision herself, one day in May, in a long burgundy gown, striding across the graduation stage.

erica.green@baltsun.com

twitter.com/EricaLG

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