Children are being left to rot in an overcrowded city jail that forces them to sleep on the floor and endure light for 24 hours a day – all while city and state officials wrangle over who should take responsibility for them.
Staff have been accused of encouraging fights at the Juvenile Justice Services Center in Philadelphia, where children are forced to sleep on floors and benches in filthy cells for months on end.
Shocking photos reveal more than 210 kids are crammed into a facility licensed to hold 184 where advocates say there is little access to bathrooms or showers.
Meanwhile, the state government is considering bringing in the National Guard or placing some inmates in the grounds of the nearest maximum security men’s prison as it struggles to find placements.
Gabby Jackson, of the city’s Youth Art and Self-Empowerment Project, said 75 percent were there for probation or house arrest violations.
‘They feel they treat them as if they’re animals,’ she added.
Overcrowding at Philadelphia’s Juvenile Justice Services Center forces many young inmates to sleep on the floor
Others secure a bench at the facility where they can be locked up for six months at a time
More than 210 kids are crammed into a facility licensed to hold 184 where advocates say lights are left burning 24 hours a day with little access to bathrooms or showers
Philadelphia has released the photos of conditions at its own facility as it demands a judge hold Pennsylvania in contempt of court for not taking accepting those sentenced to a state-run facility.
Some inmates have been caught in the backlog for six months at the center where they struggle to access school lessons, family visits and programming.
Commonwealth Court Judge Ellen Ceisler ordered in July the state to end the overcrowding within 30 days, as violence escalated amid reports some children were fashioning makeshift weapons.
But the state government said it doubled the number it placed between July and September, accusing the city authorities of ignoring alternatives to custody and blaming judges for sentences ‘far exceeding the traditional time frame for treatment’.
‘The Department of Human Services does not control timelines for stay or release,’ a state spokeswoman added.
Kendra Van de Water of YEAH Philly called on courts to consider alternatives to custody
‘That decision lies solely with juvenile courts.’
Youth worker Kendra Van de Water of YEAH Philly said the state had a point.
‘There are so many services that exist that the juvenile courts could be utilizing, and they purposely don’t,’ she told the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Michael Sontchi of the Defender Association’s Children and Youth Justice unit said that up to 20 of the inmates are awaiting placements from the city.
The juvenile center was built ten years ago to hold children aged between 10 and 17 while they await trial, or wait for placements to serve out their sentences.
The city has sought out private sector alternatives to ease the overcrowding but a facility in Texas is the only bidder.
Some of the young inmates are desperate enough to request a transfer to the south in the hope of securing their freedom more quickly, according to Keisha Hudson of the Defender Association of Philadelphia.
‘Our children are very frustrated because the time they are sitting in center, or lying on a mattress on the floor with lights on 24 hours a day,’ she added.
‘None of that time counts.
‘They’re asking their lawyers, “Please let me go because I’d be closer to coming home.”‘
The City of Philadelphia has admitted conditions in its own facility are ‘indefensible’ as it tried to persuade a judge to force more action from the state
‘We do not take a particularly humane approach to how we deal with children who come into contact with our justice system,’ said the center’s chief legal officer
A spokesman for the state said it had ‘made great progress’, and is expecting to open a 60-bed facility which could ease some of the overcrowding next month.
But the city hopes that releasing photos of the ‘indefensible’ conditions in its facility will persuade a judge to decisively intervene.
‘Those pictures speak a thousand words,’ said Marsha Levick, the center’s chief legal officer.
‘We do not take a particularly humane approach to how we deal with children who come into contact with our justice system.’