Thursday, November 24, 2011

Violence in Occupation

The occupy protests have taken the spotlight in news as of late, but not for the reasons they should. Across the nation protesters are gathering to begin a peaceful revolution in the corrupt system that has been misguiding our country and our economy, steering us into this crippling recession. Unfortunately, that’s all old news. The headlines today are covering the police brutality that’s taking place against the usually harmless people who are sitting in on the demonstrations, and the country is split between horror and justification.

In most locations where protests are taking place, the local law enforcement has asked for the crowds to disperse for a wide array of reasons: sometimes it’s a traffic matter if they’re blocking roads or sidewalks, sometimes it’s a safety matter (some protesters have been killed and raped at the camps), and sometimes it’s simply a way for law enforcement to rid themselves of the nuisance the people have become, an attempt to silence the rising voice of the 99%. Most protestors believe it to be the latter, and all have refused to dissipate, bringing the tension between police officers and demonstrators to a head.

Many demonstrations have simmered into a boil as police encroach upon the gathered civilians and civilians respond by banding together and refusing to move. Some confrontations have become face to face showdowns, where police and civilians stand nose to nose waiting for the other to blink. Frustrations mount as a war of words flies between the two adversaries, and then someone makes the first move: a shove from a civilian or a baton to the stomach by an officer, and all hell breaks loose. Civilians are beaten as officers throw punches, jab their batons, and pepper spray the living daylights out of the crowds.

Given the excitement, the massive numbers of the crowds and officers, and the muddle of the two meshed together in extremely close proximity, 20 years ago it would have been difficult to know who started what, which side was justified, and who was the innocent party. But in this day and age, thanks to the incredible advancements in technology (and let’s face it, even with the simplest of inventions like cameras) one does not have to be Sherlock Holmes to realize in most cases, the police are using excessive force in trying to “regain control” of the crowds, some of which weren’t out of control to begin with, for example a group of students at Northern California’s UC Davis. Protestors sat on the ground, arms interlocked, refusing to move as police officers circled and marched along the line like power drunk dictators. Suddenly, completely unprovoked, officers began shooting pepper spray over the heads and in the faces of the peaceful individuals. Many ducked, most had their heads covered with their jacket hoods, but if you’ve ever been around a fresh cloud of pepper spray, you don’t need it to be shot directly in your face, you don’t even need to be present when it is sprayed for it to have an effect on you, stinging your eyes and burning your throat as you breathe in the residual vapor that lingers in the air.

Other protests have resulted in harmless non-violent civilians being pepper sprayed as well, including 84 year old Dorli Rainy, and a priest. Elizabeth Nichols (pictured above) said a police officer actually began the dispute by jabbing her in the ribs with a baton then pressing it against her throat. When she reacted verbally by shouting at the officer that she was being mistreated, she was met with a steady stream of pepper spray at approximately a range of no more than two feet.

Driving out to dinner tonight with my dad, he had the car radio tuned to his favorite talk show, and they were discussing the typical debate of whether the force was necessary. Some on the show agreed that police are justified to react to any violence portrayed by the demonstrators. “What are you going to do when you have people standing right up in your face, shouting, spitting, and shoving you? Are you going to stand there and let them shove you and spit in your face? You do what you have to do,” said one. And I sat, thinking, "you couldn’t be more wrong."

I’ve frequently and very recently discussed my experiences working in group homes with troubled teens and the violence we were usually faced with when intervening in their crises or simply being in the way when they were having a bad day. The rules were clear: do not ever put your hands on a client, do not ever use physical force unless they are a clear and immediate danger to themselves or others. Such work is a high stress job and it takes a very patient and dedicated individual to do it and do it well. Usually, employees like this were in short supply, thus the several reports that speckled the news headlines when teens were dying in restraints in various facilities; employees who lost their cool and patience and used too much force. But at our facilities, the preceding policy usually meant if you had a client in your face screaming and shouting, if you had a client spit at you, or if you had a client shove you with minimal-moderate force (if they didn’t shove you hard enough to make you fall down), you were expected to take it, walk away, or call group therapy. Sometimes, even more violent behavior was tolerated, simply because you managed to keep your cool or because restraints require a minimum of two attending staff members and you were alone. Whatever the case, there were several times I was threatened and injured without resigning to physical force: being pushed down the stairs, being cut with a small piece of glass, being slammed into a wall, being hit with a metal folding chair and other various pieces of furniture, the list goes on.

Of course it’s easier to maintain one’s self-control when starting at 0, but what happens when you’re rushing towards 60? Many cases of police brutality occur after a high intensity event, such as car chases, or during riots or stand offs, when the adrenaline is rushing and some claim it's hard to maintain control. Well, sorry boys, but that’s usually bullshit too. There were plenty of moments where we were forced to engage in restraints at our facility, those moments where they were a danger to themselves or others; at one time in our facility when we housed a few more colorful characters, we were engaging in, on average, 15 restraints a week, sometimes as many as four restraints on four different clients in one day. Of course company policy also stated if it was determined to be required, place them in a restraint that would immobilize them, NOT harm them, making sure to never use more force than necessary. This meant stop them, get them to the ground or wall, and hold their arms and legs still until they calmed down, making sure they could breathe and their circulation was adequate at all times. Now at times, restraints did not go smoothly. Sometimes the clients were difficult to get on the ground. Sometimes there was a chase or a great struggle before they could be effectively immobilized. Sometimes their struggles and attempts to break free resulted in their own injuries. Our adrenaline was usually pumping by the time we hit the floor, and with a kick to the face or chest, a bite on the hand, or a sudden grasp of hair that is quickly ripped from your scalp, the test of maintaining your calm becomes almost impossible.

But we were trained to handle those moments, to avoid reaching what our training supervisor called the level of “pisstivity”. Now everyone’s human, everyone makes mistakes. I recall the moment when I finally reached my level of pisstivity with a client. She had attempted to strangle me with a lanyard draped around my neck. After trying to evade her until I was backed into a corner, I finally went into a wall restraint with her and another staff member. She was too strong for us to hold against the wall so we transferred her to the floor, where she proceeded to struggle for the next 30 minutes, biting me on the hand twice. After she claimed she was calm, we allowed her up. She slowly rose to her feet, straightened her clothing, then turned to me and snapped “Bitch! You can’t hold me down!” and shoved me with brute force. I flew back and slammed into a steel pole, my head flying back and cracking against the metal. We immediately resumed a wall restraint and at one point, as we struggled with her, I became fed up and forced her to the wall a bit harder than I needed to. It went unnoticed by the belligerent teen, but I still felt guilty when all had passed.

It’s reasonable to assume that at some point, even a police officer is going to be pushed to the brink; they are, after all, human. But if anyone should be better trained in maintaining their cool in high-stress situations, and using appropriate force at appropriate times, it’s those who have to face these types of behaviors on a regular basis. If people who are given guns, batons, and pepper spray can’t be trusted to use it effectively, why the hell are we giving them these things? Why are we entrusting our safety to people who have no knowledge of how to provide and maintain it? They are given weapons and limitless power, practically free of consequence and responsibility. But someone needs to remind them that having power doesn’t make you powerful. Having the power to control yourself is true strength.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Troubled Teens and Jaded Juveniles: Failing Our Kids Part 2

The ominous situation most juvenile delinquents find themselves in is that no better than the punishments typically reserved for adults. Though some may think that Juvenile Hall is a playground for the young offenders of today, the nature of the environment is unfortunately exact to the nature of prison. There is an element of survival, a hierarchy one must navigate through in the social construct of federal and state reprimand. To prove oneself, through acts of structural defiance, acts of loyalty, and further criminal behaviors, is to guarantee one’s protection. Other times watching and learning the inner workings of the placement assists the convict in manipulating the system to best meet their needs. And such behaviors are hardly limited to imprisonment.

As an alternative, in order to provide juvenile offenders with a better opportunity for self-improvement and successful reintegration into society, many convicted delinquents are sent to behavioral treatment facilities, high level group homes, and work camps. Through tightly structured days, afforded slightly more intervention and support than that found at the Hall, these facilities were ideal compared to the juvenile prison. But it was far from perfect, and here, the kids are expected to grow and fall on the right path. But what really are the odds?

One event I noticed on occasion both in my work with the teen girls at the BT facility and working with the male juvenile delinquents at their facility was that at times, teens are misplaced for one reason or another, a decision that compromises their future. With the boys, I found one young man placed in the facility for a very minimal offense (stealing a bike and truancy from school), though the rap sheet of his peers typically included robbery, grand theft, drug dealing, assault with a deadly weapon, and in one case, manslaughter. Though we were a level 12 facility for the girls with specific behavioral criteria for admission, some girls were merely placed with us because extraneous circumstances left them with no better placement. They had mild behavioral issues, usually depression, but significant medical issues such as diabetes or epilepsy, conditions far too risky for a level 10 or 8 home. Therefore they were placed with us, though we were no medical center either.

When it came to the young man, achieving protected status in the dormitory of 24 other delinquents became his priority. A typical 13 year old, he was well-mannered, polite, seeming to be of middle-class status, and terrified of his new surroundings. When a fight began to ensue between his roommates, he did what he believed to be the right thing, alerted the staff member on duty. Unfortunately for him, in this society, he was now labeled a snitch, and became a target. After one beat-down, he quickly began what Jane Goodall would refer to as displaying in the chimp community, proving his worth by showing off his machismo. He began to break rules, disrespect staff, and fight with other clients to climb the social ladder. After proving himself, he was accepted into the protective circle of the thug society and was deemed a pain in the ass by staff throughout the facility. After a confrontation between him and other peers took place, fearful that he would be moved to the Hall, he ran away from the facility in the dead of night and I never heard of him again.

With the girls, while there were several instances of behavior changes to graft a niche into the group home society, one behavior I typically observed was the modification to get one’s needs met. This is where the key element of the Social Learning Theory, first presented by Albert Bandura, comes into play in these environments. Individuals observe behaviors others engage in, note the pay off of the behavior (are they punished or do they receive some kind of reward) and in turn imitate the behavior themselves.

When girls were placed in our facility who really didn’t belong there, they were typically the better behaved kids who followed the rules, went to school, completed chores, and offered to help around the facility whenever possible. While staff attempted to provide as much praise and rewards as possible for their efforts, it becomes difficult to give the individualized attention these teens so desperately needed when 17 or 18 other girls in the house were acting out. The girls who were more problematic were constantly requiring attention, redirection, and crisis intervention, and it didn’t take long for the better behaved girls to become frustrated, as they should have been. “I’m doing everything I’m supposed to be doing, and yet I’m invisible.” I imagine they concluded. Eventually, they made themselves heard. Resorting to similar behaviors, we had several girls display about the house, sheepishly throwing objects at windows that never broke, spraying fire extinguishers, and threatening to kill themselves by jumping off the second story balcony, after which they would march to the balcony and hesitate, glancing over their shoulders to see if we were following. Naturally, whether or not we knew they weren’t serious, we were obligated by company policy to follow, and reinforced their attention-seeking behaviors. Once, however, when we became distracted with another girl threatening to kill herself, the one who had dashed off to the balcony realized we were not coming to rescue her, and returned, loudly displaying in the hallway, stomping her feet and cursing. Eventually behaviors escalated in severity, and the girls rarely returned to their sweet dispositions.

Though social problems in the group homes and treatment facilities largely contribute to exacerbating the issues these teens are faced with, it seems they are set up for failure right from the start by being placed in these facilities to begin with. It was mentioned in part one of this blog that compliance with the teen girls was difficult to come by. With the boys, it was not quite so hard. Given that these boys were placed in this facility as an alternative to the Hall, they understood that whatever problems they faced here, they were much worse there. With the threat of being replaced in the Hall looming, they were more motivated to try. As previously mentioned, the structure was tighter, interventions and support was more readily available in order to help these kids. In other words, they were placed in a laboratory.

Every moment of their day was planned out for them, from getting up in the morning to breakfast, school, group therapy, activity, showers, homework, dinner, more group, and sleep. Their roommates were carefully selected, they had emotional support and guidance from staff, and limited temptation from outside sources. They were removed from the environment that created so many of their issues to begin with: friends who were bad influences, families who were dysfunctional and damaging, freedom and free time to make bad decisions. What else could they do but succeed in such an intricately designed program? Many still struggled as they found other ways to get in trouble: fighting, gambling, refusing to attend school, being disrespectful to staff. But when you take into consideration the things they were placed there for, these offenses pale in comparison. They thrived in a strictly controlled environment.

After their time is served, however, they are returned to the defunct natural environments that bred them. They go back to their broken homes, back to their crime-riddled neighborhoods, back to the friends whose opinions mean so much and who always have access to drugs and booze, back to unlimited free will with little motivation to make the right choices in everyday life, and left without much aftercare. No one bothers to come out and check on them, no one bothers to take time out of their day to keep them in line. If they don’t go to school, no one really cares. If they don’t do their homework, they rarely have anyone to answer to; no one holds them accountable anymore. How long do you believe it takes them to revert to their previous lifestyle?

Such is the problem for adult convicts as well, and is a distinct answer to the question of rampant recidivism in prisons and juvenile halls. You cannot take an unruly chimp, teach him how to behave in a cage, then release him to the world and expect the same results you achieved in lockdown.

A better alternative, argued Richard Mendel in his report Less Hype, More Help: Reducing Juvenile Crime… was instead of removing the teens from their homes, to provide care within the natural environment. Offering therapeutic treatments in the home with the entire family, assigning a mentor to keep close tabs on the teen, and facilitating a collaborative effort between the multiple facets in their lives, such as family, teachers, and outreach programs, Mendel believed that the individual had a higher chance at success. The program’s therapeutic approaches, titled Multi-Systematic Therapy and Family Functional Therapy, addressed the issues at the root of the presenting problems, and guided the teen to make better independent choices in the current environment, instead of within a superficial one where the possibility to make their own choices was significantly reduced, thereby teaching them nothing. After longitudinal studies were conducted, not only did these programs prove to be more effective than treatment facilities and group homes, they were also significantly cheaper, costing anywhere between $2,000-5,000, whereas facilities and homes cost approximately $50,000 annually.

Granted, placement in this program is not appropriate for everyone, higher risk offenders that have been convicted on charges of violence, for instance, need alternative placement, but many of the offenders for drug use, minor theft, and behavioral issues such as truancy would benefit from it, rather than being placed in “criminal college”, where they will learn to be better convicts from more seasoned offenders, where their behaviors only get worse, and where emotionally, they’re as lost as they ever were.

So the question now is: when are we going to save them from themselves?