Locked Up for the Holidays

  • December 05, 2016
  • By Marsha Mercer
Juvenile Detention Center

A juvenile resident sits in a classroom at a detention center in Atlanta. In many places, juvenile justice officials or nonprofits provide small gifts or holiday meals to young offenders who spend the holidays in custody.

© The Associated Press

The “most wonderful time of the year” may be the hardest for tens of thousands of young people locked up for the holidays.

But many states try — within the confines of security rules, budgets and protocols — to make the season a little brighter for youthful offenders, who often are housed far from home.

As it has every year since 1937, the Oklahoma Santa Claus Commission will spread cheer with presents. Each of the 400 offenders in the state’s residential detention facilities and group homes will receive a Kelly green duffle bag, a holiday stocking with candy and stationery, body wash (Dove for girls and Axe for boys), and a $9 gift card.

Staff will also distribute holiday cards, and the facilities will throw holiday parties.

“These are children who made a mistake,” said Tierney Tinnin, chair of the commission and deputy communications director of the state Office of Juvenile Affairs. “They’re working through the program to understand why they made a mistake. For us to provide a sense of normalcy in the holiday season helps put them on the path to right decisions, so they will be a great asset to the community when they come out.”

Many youthful offenders have a parent in prison, while others were raised by grandparents who physically aren’t able to make the trip or can’t afford to, Tinnin said.

The gift-giving in Oklahoma and other states fits with a broader trend in juvenile justice: replacing the adult-style prison model with a more positive culture in state facilities.

Research has shown that incarceration of lower-risk teens leads to higher recidivism rates, so incarceration is increasingly seen as a last resort. The number of youths held in residential facilities around the country has dropped by more than half, from 108,800 in 2000 to 50,800 in 2014, according to one-day counts by the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

“The more we try to normalize these kids, the better the outcome,” said James Bueche, deputy secretary of the Louisiana Office of Juvenile Justice, which will distribute holiday gift bags to about 235 incarcerated youths, ages 13 to 20. “If you treat them as less than human, that’s the way they’re going to be.”

Shackles and Handcuffs

Around the country, state, local and private detention and residential centers, as well as faith and local support groups, provide small gifts or holiday meals to juveniles who spend the holidays in custody. What makes Oklahoma’s gift program different is that it’s required by law and funded by the state. 

The state budget dedicates $10,000 a year to the Santa commission, which also collects private donations. The commission had about $75,000 in its account going into the holiday season.

“I have never been able to find anybody who does it like we do,” said Paula Christiansen, a nine-year veteran public information officer at the Oklahoma juvenile affairs agency.

In Maryland, youths can earn a pass for good behavior to go home to celebrate Christmas. Last year, when the family of a girl who’d earned a pass could not come pick her up, a Department of Juvenile Services staff member drove her home.

But first, two staff members, one wearing a Santa hat, put the girl into shackles and handcuffs that were fastened to a belly chain with a black box, and attached a GPS monitor to her ankle, according to the state Juvenile Justice Monitoring Unit 2015 annual report, which includes photos of the preparations.

Some residential facilities put up holiday trees and let the juveniles make decorations and toys to use as gifts. Others have religious services and serve holiday meals.

“I think the facilities around the country do a really good job of trying to create a supportive atmosphere,” said Wayne Bear, CEO of the National Partnership for Juvenile Services. “But it’s not home.”

“As you can imagine, these are kids who typically have not experienced the family traditions other kids have on holidays and birthdays,” said Bear, who is also executive director of the Juvenile Detention Centers and Alternative Programs in Pennsylvania.

Funding for Presents

No general or taxpayer funds are used in Louisiana’s program. The money to pay for the gift bags — with pajamas, body wash, candy and chips — comes from fees collected from movies that were made in state facilities and youth canteens in the detention centers, he said.

The gifts are “not anything extravagant,” Bueche said, adding that the state correctional system does not usually issue pajamas, and the kids like special soap.

“They get excited about getting the gift bags,” he said.

In Oklahoma, the price tag for each gift will be about $30, and with related holiday expenses the fund will pay out about $15,000 in all, Tinnin of the Santa commission said. The duffle bags cost $12 apiece, she said.

The state polled the managers of the facilities to find out what the teens wanted. When released from custody, the young people usually leave for home straight from court, and they carry their possessions in a trash bag, she said. The duffle bags are a way for the state to give kids a positive send-off for the next phase of their life.

Oklahoma’s Santa Claus Commission goes back to 1935, when a state budget officer named R.R. Owen and his wife visited an orphanage in Helena and learned that the orphans would not receive any Christmas presents.

The next year, Owen collected donations for gifts, and in 1937 the Legislature created the commission, which is required by law to provide Christmas presents to every child in state custody. The 1937 law authorized $2,000 a year in state funds to buy gifts.

Nearly nine years ago, then-Juvenile Affairs Director Gene Christian wanted to stop giving gifts and redirect commission funds to scholarships.

The original goal of the commission was laudable, he argued, but the program was outdated. “We are talking about … people who committed criminal acts,” Christian said. But the Legislature wouldn’t kill the Santa commission.

Playing the Long Game

Advocacy groups that once made holidays brighter with holiday gift bags for incarcerated youth now devote most of their time and energy to lobbying to reform the juvenile justice system.

“Groups are fighting for the closure of institutions, to make states realize prisons for kids are not effective,” said Tamar Birckhead, a juvenile justice law professor at the University of North Carolina and visiting professor at Yale University.

Instead of focusing only on the long game of prison reform, she said, nonprofit juvenile justice groups could devote some of their budget to “doing something for the truly unfortunate youth who are locked up.”

Ideally states would release the youths, she said.

But failing that, she said, states should ensure that families have transportation to visit their incarcerated children, and schedule a holiday party for youth and their families at institutions.

For the teens, a party with family “would feel ‘normal’ to them and not reinforce that they have in essence been exiled from the community,” she wrote in an email.

Penelope Spain, CEO of Open City Advocates, formerly called Mentoring Today, said her group collected items from the public for holiday gift bags for three years in Washington, D.C., but stopped about six years ago.

“It’s silly how many snags can go wrong,” Spain said. “People are trying to do good things but they don’t realize how secure the facilities are.”

For example, hardcover books are banned from many juvenile and adult corrections facilities because they are heavy and can be used as weapons. Bubble gum is often prohibited because it can be used to block locking systems in doors.

“We love it when people care about our kids,” said Brenda Padavil, public affairs specialist with the District of Columbia Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services, which operates the 60-bed New Beginnings Youth Development Center in Laurel, Maryland.

“We allow gift bags,” she said, but staff goes through each bag to make sure the contents meet security standards. The long list of unacceptable items includes perfume and cologne, hats, watches and hoop earrings larger than a quarter.

At New Beginnings last year, a Christmas meal was catered by a local restaurant. This Thanksgiving, incarcerated teens had an in-house dinner with their families.

“It’s important for people to remember these kids are also citizens,” Padavil said. “They’re members of the community.”

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