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5 Tips for Working with Prisoners for Advocates

According to Bureau of Justice Statistics, as of 2016, the United States has more than 1.5 million individuals residing in the nation’s corrections system.

Human Rights Watch reports that over 50,000 youth, ranging in age from 13 to 18 years old are incarcerated in juvenile detention centers (juvenile hall) While the majority are in juvenile detention facilities, many are held in adult facilities. Many states have laws that make it possible for children to be charged as adults and, if found guilty, they are placed in adult correctional facilities. Seventeen n states have outlawed lifetime prison sentences without the possibility of parole. However, these restrictions do not stop children from being placed in adult detention facilities. As of 2017, approximately 5,000 children are adult prisons. This is the largest number of children in adult prisons in the entire developed world.

If you are working within the prison system, whether as a mental health worker, a nurse, a custodian or a correctional officer, if you see evidence of human rights violations, there are things you can do to advocate for the victims. Here are five things you can do as a human rights advocate:

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1. Understand What Constitutes a Human Rights Violation

One of the largest human rights violations, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is forcing inmates into extended solitary confinement. Extended solitary confinement without access to reading materials, outside activities, adequate food and adequate medical treatment results in substantial mental and physical deterioration in humans. It is a form of human torture.

The United Nations (UN) has a detailed and specific list of human rights regulations and definitions of human rights violations. Here is a short list of violations:

• Prison personnel should not inappropriately use tasers/stun guns, pepper spray, batons or other items to punish or assault inmates.
• Juvenile inmates should be held separately from adult inmates.
• Inmates should be provided with water for personal hygiene, along with hygiene products.
• Inmates sharing cells should be matched based on suitability and monitored nightly.
• Inmates should be fed nutritious meals at regular intervals.
• Inmates should be provided with drinking water at all times.
• Mental health providers should be available at all facilities.
• Medical services should be available and provided at all times.
• Female inmates should be provided with pre- and post-natal care, including delivery services by appropriately trained medical personnel.
• No inmate should be forced to work for the institution as punishment.
• Inmates should be informed of specific violations if they are punished.
• Handcuffs, chains, irons and straight jacks may not ever be used as restraints.
• Institutions should be provided with library materials for reading.
• Inmates should be provided with writing materials.
• If an inmate dies, becomes seriously ill or is injured, the inmate’s spouse or closest relative should be informed immediately.
• Inmates should have access to religious/spiritual counseling and services.
• Inmates should be allowed to participate in physical activities.
• Inmates should be provided with opportunities to continue their education, learn practical work skills and receive social skills training.
• Inmates should be allowed family social visits.
• Inmates with mental health conditions and/or mental disabilities should be provided with appropriate supervision.
• Inmates with mental health conditions and/or mental disabilities should be placed in appropriate facilities to accommodate their specific needs.
• Juvenile inmates should be held separate and apart from adult inmates.
• Unconvicted inmates should he housed separately from convicted inmates.

2. Be Aware of Unsafe Locations

Although most prisons have cameras throughout the facilities, it is easy for guards and prisoners to find places where cameras do not catch all of their activities. If you see something that is a clear violation, then document it.

There are many potential violations that can happen in places where both correctional employees and prisoners believe that they can get away with unacceptable activities. For example, there have been instances where prison guards arranged for inmates to participate in “fight clubs” with the guards insisting in participation. Other examples include prison guards physically abusing inmates, conducting “hazing” activities and forcing food or liquids down an inmate’s throat. Frequently, inmates are targeted for such violations; they may be targeted because of their race, their sexual identity, physical characteristics or because someone has randomly decided this particular inmate should be intimidated and/or tortured.

If you encounter these forms of human rights abuses, often casually walking through the area or making a noise in advance of walking into the scene will immediately stop the activity. However, keep in mind that in many cases, these types of violations are not limited to a single event. They are frequently repeated – not only with the same inmates, but also with the same prison personnel.

3. Understand How to Document

There are numerous ways you can document human rights violations. Very few, if any, prisons or jails allow personnel to bring cell phones into the facility. There are logical reasons behind this, primarily to prevent inmates from attempting to forcibly take a cell phone from employees or to keep personnel from illegally passing cell phones to inmates. However, it does limit your ability to record or take pictures of events as they happen or take photos of injuries resulting from assaults.

One habit that is worth starting, if you do not do it already, is keeping a work diary of daily events for your work day. This is not just for human rights violations, but also for anything else that happens during the day. It can be helpful if any other events occur that you might be asked about.

4. Learn Your Prison System

The laws that regulate prison systems are different in each state. Federal prisons also have their own set of regulations under which they operate. You can find out about the laws that regulate your prison system by looking at your state website, generally under a tab titled “Corrections Department” or a similar title.

Additionally, the rules for juvenile detention centers, county jails, state prisons and federal prisons fall under different rules. If you are working in the federal prison system, you will need to search for federal rules on the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) website. The BOP website is designed with several sections, including PDF files related to federal inmates. The information about general rules and regulations is in a section titled “BOP Policies.”

In addition to learning about the official rules and regulations of your facility, you also need to learn about the unsaid culture. Talk to other staff members, including individuals who are outside of your own department. Getting to know and be part of the culture can make a difference in determining the reputations of your coworkers and who you should be aware of as a potential ally or potential habitual human rights abuser. Being aware of your work culture can also help you understand how closely workers follow established rules and regulations or how loosely those regulations are followed.

5. Know How to Report

Each division of the corrections system has a different reporting system. How and when you make a report can also be determined by the culture of your facility. When you are employed, you should receive a handbook that outlines reporting procedures. When possible, follow those rules. However, in some cases, it is not possible to follow established reporting, because there is an internal culture that endorses of human rights violations. When this is the case, you may need to report directly to the state or federal Bureau of Prisons.

If and when you decide to make a report, it is important that you present detailed information in your report. In your report, you need to be able to disclose the names of the violators, the violation in detail, the date and time of the violation and the name of the inmate who was targeted.

Ultimately, human rights violations come to light by diligent advocates who document what they see and are willing to take the steps to report what they witness. There are many, many violations that occur in prison facilities that are never witnessed and never reported. What can seem like a minor violation can be the precursor to even more violent or life threatening events. It is important to be aware, observe and document violations whenever possible.








Marigold M. Groot is a retired Psychologist and Marriage & Family Therapist. She holds graduate degrees in Counseling Psychology and Clinical Psychology. She has worked extensively with the California Criminal Justice system, including youth detention centers, county jails and state correctional facilities. She has also worked with the US Veterans Administration and California’s Victim/Witness program.

As a strong advocate for human rights, Ms Groot has participated with efforts to stop human sex trafficking, participates in efforts to stop hunger in her local community, participates in monitoring elder care and hospital treatment of mental health patients, and is an advocate for protection of domestic violence victims.