Sweating it Out In Uncle Sam’s Big House

Jack Kresnak
November 1, 1998

Juveniles Flung Far From Home; Does it Make Sense to Send More?

The shackles linking the six youths clink and clang as guards escort them outside for tonight's sweat.

They are among the "baddest" juveniles in the federal prison system. They are hundreds, even thousands of miles from home.

The guards unlock the chains and cuffs. The young Native Americans strip off their shirts and stoop to enter the domelike tent of thick canvas stretched over bowed willow branches.

They sit in a circle in the lodge, sprinkle sage and tobacco on rocks, meditate, beat a drum, chant and sweat some more in communion with the Great Spirit.

Their lodge is on the grounds of the Southwest Multi County Corrections Center, a two-story adult jail nestled between a Perkins Family Restaurant and the Dakota Dinosaur Museum in this struggling farming community 100 miles west of Bismark.

The center is the largest maximum security program for juveniles under federal authority — a tiny population that might grow significantly if Congress enacts juvenile crime legislation that would encourage more federal prosecution of youths. The most recent legislative effort died just weeks ago when negotiations broke down, but Republicans vowed to revive their get-tough juvenile crime push next year. (See story, page 5).

Amid all the talk of charging more juveniles in federal courts, no one has answered some basic questions: How are juveniles treated in federal prisons now? And can federal prisons handle more juveniles?

"They're having trouble keeping up with their existing demand," says Michael Mahoney, president of the John Howard Association in Chicago, and member of the youth in federal custody task force under the Coordinating Council on Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. "They are going to have an increased number of kids if some of these new laws pass."

The U.S. Bureau of Prisons (BOP) already struggles to handle 239 juveniles under its control. The federal prison system is built for adults; it has 116,000 of them. But the number of youths has risen from 111 in 1990. These youths are generally squeezed into small programs carved out of adult facilities, like the one in Dickinson. Enactment of get-tough juvenile crime legislation might well bring more youths here or to juvenile facilities that will have to be created.

"You can't imagine that they're incredibly well set up to handle an influx of juveniles," says Mark Mauer, assistant director of The Sentencing Project, based in Washington, D.C.

How big would that influx be? No one knows. BOP spokesman Todd Craig says that if the agency has done any projections about how the juvenile crime bills would impact the BOP's juvenile population, he can't reveal them. Indeed, even youth and criminal justice advocates who've been following every nuance of the legislation say they've heard no one discuss how BOP would handle more youths.

Backers of the juvenile crime legislation seem to be banking on the prescience of people like John Cox, spokesman for crime bill backer Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), who says, "It is not expected that [the legislation] will result in any significant increase."

Regardless of the numbers, the idea making more juvenile offenders eligible for federal prison raises the question of how the BOP handles the youths it has now. Some answers can be found in Dickinson.

Far from Home

It is not happenstance that many of the juveniles here are Native American; that is the ethnic background of two-thirds of all juveniles in the BOP system. While youths can land in federal prison for violations of federal law such as drug trafficking and bank robbery or for crimes on federal property, most are in for felonies committed on Indian reservations.

The BOP juvenile system consists of 30 institutions, both secure and nonsecure, under contract with the federal government. The youngest offenders the BOP takes are 13; there is currently one in New Mexico and one in South Dakota. Offenders can enter as youths up to age 18, but once in, can stay until 25, when they must be released. The average age of youths in the federal system is 17.

The 40-bed juvenile facility here is run by the county, under a corrections center program called Dakota Horizons. The BOP pays Dakota Horizons $99.80 a day for each juvenile.

Juveniles are here from as far away as Maine and Hawaii. About half of the juveniles in BOP facilities are more than 250 miles from home. Distance is one of the main criticisms of putting juveniles in the BOP system. For rehabilitation to succeed, most experts agree, families of jailed youths should be involved in their therapy and their lives.

"Obviously, the government needs to cease using nonregional placement for kids,'' says Larry Brendtro, president of Reclaiming Youth International and, like Mahoney, a member of the juvenile justice coordinating council. "My concern for some time has been with this whole issue of the federal government placing kids hundreds or thousands of miles away from home,'' says Brendtro, who was part of a BOP team that audited Dakota Horizons a year ago.

"I send these kids up to the Dakotas, and that's a long way from Arizona for a 15, 16-year-old kid," said U.S. District Court Judge Richard Bilby of Tucson, who sentenced several juveniles to federal facilities and spoke with Youth Today before dying of a heart attack last August.

It's an even longer way for an 18-year-old from Maine, such as Robert, one of several youths that Dakota Horizons made available for interviews. Being so far from home "is the toughest part of the whole thing," says Robert, who is here for a series of crimes including car jackings, home invasions and robberies of drug dealers. He says his mother and siblings visited him here last year.

Dakota Horizons Director Norbert Sickler says the facility helps pay travel expenses for some of the families, and offers free accommodations in the area. "From our experience, we have found that individuals who are from a greater distance, this has really not hampered the treatment program,'' says Sickler, former head of North Dakota's Bureau of Criminal Investigations. "We do encourage the kids to keep family connections both by writing and telephone.''

The BOP plans to house all federal juveniles within 250 miles of their homes by fiscal year 2000, unless the sentencing judge rules otherwise, says Patricia Sledge, Deputy Assistant Director for the Bureau of Prisons' community corrections and detention division.

Even that might not be good enough, says James Bell, staff attorney for the Youth Law Center in San Francisco. "By locking somebody up in Dickinson, North Dakota, I'm sure there's not a strong after-care component" for the youths when they are sent back home, especially to a reservation, he says. "There's no transition back to the community. The kids will pick up right where they left off. If we can keep them closer to home in a joint state/tribal venture of some kind and begin the transition back, I think that those dollars are better spent."

Indeed, John Echohawk, executive director of the National Indian Legal Defense Fund, says it would be better to treat Indian juveniles in their local communities. But that isn't always possible.

"The tribes would like to handle these juveniles locally under tribal law with tribal facilities,'' Echohawk says. "But we've got such a tremendous problem related to a lack of funding for basic facilities, including juvenile facilities, that we don't really have any other choice but to use federal facilities off reservation.''

Created for Adults

Ironically, Dakota Horizons does not pass muster as a juvenile rehabilitation program under North Dakota law, says Terry Traynor, the North Dakota juvenile justice specialist who administers federal Juvenile Justice Act funds in the state. "They're licensed under North Dakota law as a jail and we can't, as state government, place juveniles there,'' Traynor says.

Sickler says his staff strives to maintain "sight and sound'' separation of juveniles and adults, as required by federal guidelines, although occasionally adults and youths may see each other through a glass window. A construction project to expand the building, to be finished in the spring, will mean total separation for juveniles, Sickler says.

The problem is that the BOP's facilities were built for adults, with modifications made for youths. James Cunningham, another juvenile justice expert on the team that audited Dakota Horizons in August 1997, says that the BOP's "instruments were geared toward adult penal situations and not toward rehabilitating children.

"What they're doing is not meeting the needs of those children in terms of rehabilitating them,'' says Cunningham, director of the Detroit programs for Starr Commonwealth Schools, one of Michigan's leading agencies in rehabilitating delinquent youths. "They used standards that would apply to adults and not standards that would apply to children.''

The BOP does plan to substantially upgrade programs for juveniles, says Sledge of the agency's community corrections and detention division. Sledge was on the team that evaluated Dakota Horizons last year, and says she was "very much impressed with the staff they had there." She admitted that she is unfamiliar with the "therapeutic milieu" concept used in most juvenile rehabilitation institutions, but says BOP psychologists and staff at Dakota Horizons are providing appropriate therapy.

Sickler says he is proud of the therapeutic services at his facility, and that they are expanding. While the audit team found that each youth got just 20 hours a week of programs including schooling, vocational training, counseling and mental health services Sickler says an audit last May put the figure at "approximately 45 hours. Our goal is to have 50.'' That will be the requirement under the BOP's new Statement of Work contracts.

Dakota Horizons provides psychological screening and counseling for juvenile inmates. A psychiatrist evaluates juveniles who may need behavior-modifying medications. The facility has three licensed addiction counselors; most of the juveniles have serious problems with alcohol, marijuana and cocaine. Many of the youths come from facilities that couldn't handle them.

"We're supposed to handle the toughest of the tough," says Loree Basaraba Thompson, head of mental health services at Dakota Horizons.

"It's a jail, but there are plenty of things we can do here," says Robert, the youth from Maine. He attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings here.

Native American Programs

The conditions at the BOP juvenile facilities are of particular interest to Native Americans. Fred LaMere, a Santee Sioux who works on homeschooling programs for Indian youth in Sioux City, Iowa, and also is a consultant on Indian affairs in Iowa's adult prisons, says prosecutors and judges are sending too many Indian youths to adult prison rather than juvenile facilities.

"Basically, all the prisons are doing is allowing them [the youths] to have sweat lodges,'' LaMere says. "As far as therapy and rehabilitation geared towards Native Americans, they're not doing that.''

Others are more impressed. The Rev. Kevin Leckey, non-denominational minister at the Lower Brule Indian reservation south of Pierre, S.Dak., recently visited two former students who are serving time at Dakota Horizons. "I think it's one of the best [juvenile prisons] I've seen,'' he says. "That's because of the activities, the education, the process that they do with the kids. They give them something to look forward to each day rather than sitting in a cell with an empty mind.''

Larry Foster, director and spiritual advisor for the Navajo Nation Corrections Project in Arizona, knows several youths who have done time in Dickinson. He says the spiritual ceremonies, such as the sweat lodge, are significant for incarcerated Indians, and that getting such ceremonies into prisons has been a long struggle. "The sweat lodge and pipe ceremonies are perhaps the most successful therapies for our youths who are incarcerated," Foster says. "The Native American youth are far removed from their homelands. They're isolated and they need every opportunity to participate in their traditional beliefs. They benefit from this spiritual healing."

More to Come?

Could the BOP handle even more juveniles?

Youth advocates, judges and police have been critical of the movement to federalize crimes that are already handled by states. They see no advantage to sending kids to faraway prisons under federal jurisdiction as opposed to state facilities that are set up for juveniles. In some states, however, the juvenile facilities might not offer as much programming as do BOP facilities such as Dakota Horizons.

"We're supposed to be a limited jurisdiction court,'' Judge Bilby said. "We're really supposed to only try those crimes that really affect the United States: treason, espionage and dope. And they keep expanding jurisdiction and making it concurrent with the states. When you do that, you get into judge-shopping with local police officials trying to find harsher penalties in one place or another, which can be very unseemly.''

"I'm sure there would be somewhat of an increase" in the numbers of youths tried in federal court, Mauer says. The size of the increase, he says, would depend on several factors, including whether "the U.S. attorneys really want to take on additional cases."

Kresnak, Jack. "Sweating it Out In Uncle Sam’s Big House." Youth Today, November 1998, p. 1.

©2000 Youth Today. Reprinted with permission from Youth Today. All rights reserved.