The United States is the only country in the world which can imprison youths (those under the age of 18 at the time of their offense) to life with parole sentences in prison.
According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), about 2570 youthful offenders are serving their sentences in adult prisons and are themselves subject to a litany of abuses, including sexual assault, from their fellow inmates and from corrections officers.
In a report entitled “Against All Odds: Prison Conditions for Youth Offenders Serving Life without Parole Sentences in the United States,” HRW cited eyewitness accounts of the horrors of prison life from the eyes of the young.
One youthful inmate in California told HRW: “[I was] scared to death. I was all of 5’6”, 130 pounds and they sent me to PBSP [Pelican Bay State Prison]. I tried to kill myself because I couldn’t stand what the voices in my head was saying…. ‘You’re gonna get raped.’ ‘You won't ever see your family again.’”
Another young prisoner, in Colorado, told HRW researchers: “When I was young, it was disorienting and scary, like a fish thrown in water not knowing how to swim. Everyone seemed big and dangerous and threatening, I was challenged and intimidated a lot. Canines [sexual predators] stalked me, and at all times I expected to be attacked.”
A female prisoner named Samantha L., who has been incarcerated for two decades after being convicted at the age of 17, told the activist group: “You know what’s the worst part of being young and being in prison? It’s like you never get to the place where other people are at. It’s like you’re always looking for guidance, you can’t trust other people, and even as you get old, you still feel like you are 17. I mean sometimes I see myself in the mirror and I see that my body, my skin, is getting older but inside I feel like I’m still seventeen.”
Youthful convicts are serving life terms in 38 states and also in federal facilities, HRW noted.
“They often enter adult prison while still children, although some have reached young adulthood by the time their trials end and they begin serving their sentences,” HRW stated.
“Prison policies that channel resources to inmates who are expected to be released often result in denying youth serving life without parole opportunities for education, development, and rehabilitation.”
The study also revealed that such green inmates frequently suffer from suicidal thoughts and depression.
“Isolation was frequently compounded by solitary confinement,” HRW added.
“In the past five years, at least three youth offenders serving life without parole sentences in the United States have committed suicide.”
HRW has called for federal officials to abolish imposing life sentences without parole on children who commit crimes.
“Children who commit serious crimes and who inflict harm on others should be held accountable. But neither youth offenders, nor any other prisoner, should endure any form of physical abuse,” said Alison Parker, director of the US program at HRW, in a statement.
“Because children are different, shutting the door to growth, development, and rehabilitation turns a sentence of life without parole into a punishment of excessive cruelty. Youth offenders should be given a path to rehabilitation while in prison – not forced to forfeit their future.”
HRW added the U.S. Supreme Court will consider the constitutionality of the practice of sentencing children to life sentences without parole in March of this year.