Matt Kelley, A U.S. Blind Spot: Kids in Prison, criminaljustice.change.org, January 29, 2010

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof devoted his column yesterday to an issue he called a personal “blind spot:” U.S. prisons. While the august columnist has devoted his pen to obvious human rights offenses inside of Guantánamo Bay as well as Chinese and North Korean prisons, he's never touched the issue of prisons in the U.S. But now, reports of widespread sexual assault in juvenile facilities across the country have inspired him to take up the cause of prison reform.

It’s great to have such a prominent voice and a persistent human rights advocate on our side. One way to thank Kristof for bringing awareness to this issue -- and to encourage him to stick with it -- is by posting comments on his blog, which I'd urge you to do.

In his column, Kristof points to the deplorable statistics released recently the Department of Justice, which indicate that almost one in eight youths report being sexually assaulted behind bars. He echoes a sentiment I’ve heard from prisoners over the last decade: how is it possible that Guantánamo gets so much attention from pro bono firms, while garden-variety U.S. prisoners get skipped over? The answers there might be obvious -- Guantánamo has a much higher international profile, et cetera. But while Guantánamo litigation is crucial, it doesn’t change the need for legal help in less marquee cases across our prison-filled nation.

The good news is that Kristof’s column, and his explicit discussion of prisons as a blind spot, are a sign that national media is waking up on this issue. Just Detention International has a list of major outlet stories on its homepage that probably wouldn't have been nearly as long five years ago. New York Magazine this week has a heartbreaking feature on New York’s Tryon Residential Center, a juvenile facility with a sad history and murkier future. (Hat tip: Ken.)

As the Prison Rape Elimination Commission report pointed out last year, there are ways to prevent sexual assault and violence in detention facilities -- close, compassionate management of these facilities is far superior to the free-for-alls that many facilities (including kids’ prisons) have become. The only justification for sending a kid to prison is if all other remedies have been thoroughly exhausted.

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