(Twenty years ago I was commissioned by a movie producer to write a treatment for a documentary on the scandalous state of America’s juvenile justice system. The film was never made but my findings still seem relevant today, which is why I have decided to publish them in this issue of Lively Arts)
Weeping In The Playtime Of Others
FEATURE BY Willard Manus

According to the 1990 Universal Almanac, 9 per cent of the America's 878,909 inmates are children. Some of these prisoners are as young as 5 years old.

In a July l986 case study, researchers with the University of California, Los Angeles, determined that 53 per cent of the female wards interviewed said they had been physically and/or sexually abused while incarcerated; 26 per cent of the male inmates surveyed had been physically and/or sexually abused while incarcerated. It should be kept in mind that only a percentage of abused children will ever admit their victimization to anyone.

In an October 1988 study, researchers with the New York School of Medicine found that 5 of the 14 juvenile offenders currently held on American death rows said they had been sexually abused by relatives and/or staff members at their juvenile correctional institutions. Twelve of the 14 offenders said they had been brutally beaten with whips and/or belts. All 14 had suffered serious head injuries as children. "Criminal acts committed by children are the result of a festering wound," one researcher concluded.

In an August 1989 investigation of the Western New York Children's Psychiatric Center by a New York state commission, investigators found 64 separate incidents of adult staff members sexually abusing the center's juvenile wards. According to the report, sexual abuse between wards and staff was overlooked and was even encouraged between the children as "normal behavior."

Despite all the studies and investigations, apologists for the juvenile correctional system continue to deny that abuses occur. Beyond denial and ignorance, there exists the offensive belief that a beaten or raped child is "getting his due" for committing a crime. Swift and severe punishment, some contend, is the best and only way to manage troubled youth.

Unfortunately, this view is often held by the people charged with the operation of the juvenile system itself.

* * * *

The treatment of incarcerated children in the USA is one of scandalous proportions. It is one of the most horrible secrets of our society, that children--some of whom have not committed a crime but were sent to these homes by the courts anyway--are treated in subhuman fashion: dosed with pacifying drugs, denied medical attention, locked away for long periods in solitary confinement, subjected to tear-gassing and even electro-shock therapy by their largely hostile and brutal adult warders.

Numerous reformers and muck-rakers have tried to expose the wrongdoing in America's juvenile facilities. In l971, NBC-TV News broadcast a documentary called "This Child is Rated X" which caused a stir at the time and led to some reforms of the system. In l976, Kenneth Wooden published a book which also alerted the public to the injustices and inhumanity occurring in juvenile facilities across the country.

Other books, newspaper and magazine articles have also attacked the problem. Most of them, unfortunately, were written 20 years ago or more. Even more unfortunate is the way most of these exposes were received--with a distinct lack of interest on the part of the public. Like the so-called "good" Germans of the Nazi period who claimed not to know what was happening in the concentration camps, most Americans prefer to keep blinders on where juvenile incarceration is concerned.

The time has come again to make another effort to force America to confront the reality of its own concentration camps. It is time to put together a documentary film depicting the state of juvenile incarceration in the 90's, a film that will be shot in as many facilities across the country as possible, give voice to boys and girls who have been--or still are--in these homes, put on camera representatives of the system (guards, dorm counselors, administrators, etc.) as well as those who have criticized it, such as the lawyer Ed Bercu, who bravely took on the state of Texas in l973 in defense of the constitutional rights of children.

The documentary will show just how unfairly and brutally children are treated in most of America's juvenile facilities. It will put across a blunt truth: that these facilities are snake-pits, breeding grounds for criminals, incubators for future Charles Mansons and Gary Gilmores (both of whom were brutalized in youth facilities in their teens, by the way).

At the same time, if some positive things are happening in the juvenile system today--if, somewhere in the USA, children are being rehabilitated, not simply being punished--we will show this good side as well and point to it as a model to be emulated on a national scale.

Since no major study has been made in the 90's of the juvenile justice system, it is hard to guess just what the balance between positive and negative will be. But if what is happening in America's "reform" schools today is anything like what has happened since those schools were first opened, chances are our documentary will echo the plaintive cry of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who penned these words five decades ago:

"Do you hear the children weeping oh my brothers

The young children, oh my brothers, they are weeping bitterly.

They are weeping in the playtime of others."