Why Jonathan McClard still matters

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Excerpted from a speech given by Gabrielle Horowitz-Prisco, director of the CA’s Juvenile Justice Project, during the Raise the Age – NY!  campaign launch press conference on July 11, 2013.

About a year ago, I was to writing a piece on youth in adult jails and prisons and I wanted to write about Jonathan McCLard, a seventeen year old boy in Missouri who committed suicide by hanging in an adult facility as he was awaiting transfer to a notoriously abusive adult prison.

I had met Jonathan’s mother, Tracy, at a youth justice event- after Jonathan’s death, she quit her job as a school teacher to devote herself to getting kids out of adult jails and prisons. Over dinner, Tracy described to me the marked changes she observed in Jonathan’s appearance as he spent time in adult facilities- the hardening and shutting down, the fighting he was forced to do, and his fear. She described her powerlessness as a mother to get her son out of what she knew was a life-threatening situation. How Jonathan had been placed in solitary confinement as punishment for putting his hands in his lap during their visit. The impact of solitary on his mind and spirit.

How she believed that it was his fear of being raped in prison that led him to take his own life.

 

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Gabrielle Horowitz-Prisco shared this story about Jonathan and his family during a press conference about Raise the Age on July 11, 2013.

I wanted to make sure that Tracy was okay with me writing these details down, with their potential publication. So I called her at home one night and asked.

I remember this moment—she said “let me check something with my husband” and she put the phone down and I could hear through the distance. She said: “Do you think it is accurate to say that it seems like Jonathan killed himself because he was afraid of being raped?” Her husband said yes. She got back on the phone and said: “if it helps another parent not go through what we have gone through, you can talk about that- you can share whatever part of his life will help.”

Do you know those moments where the world sort of stops, time slows down, and you feel things deep, deep in your belly? It was one of those moments. I felt the presence of my own partner one room away from me. We were newly engaged and our whole lives together seemed spread out before us–full of joy and promise.

I remembered that Tracy’s husband and son both tried to commit suicide themselves as they grappled with the pain of losing Jonathan. Her daughter had been hospitalized with severe anxiety. And I thought about how when our conversation was over, I would go into the living room and have a light-hearted normal night at home with the person I love so much, but Tracy and her husband may never again have that kind of night.

I thought about what I want you to know: Jonathan’s death is not unique– children in adult jails are 36 times more likely to commit suicide than children in adult detention facilities, and the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission stated that “more than any other group of incarcerated persons, youth incarcerated with adults are probably at the highest risk for sexual abuse.”

And children in adult jails and prisons are often placed in solitary confinement for up to 23 hours a day- where they are fed through a small slot in the door so that the only contact they have is a hand coming through a slot in the door. Can you imagine that: just an arm coming through a slot to push food in to a child.  Children in solitary do not leave their cells to go to school or programs, and can stay for months and even years at a time.

This all happens in New York State, and it happens because we prosecute 16- and 17- year olds as adults and confine them in adult jails and prisons. This practice causes children immeasurable physical, emotional and sexual trauma.

And it is bad for public safety- children prosecuted as adults are far more likely to commit crime and violence in the future than youth prosecuted in the youth justice system.

Finally, it is bad for taxpayers. Not only does prosecuting children as adults keep many young people from lifelong education and employment opportunities- nearby Connecticut is spending approximately 2 million dollars less on youth justice than it was 10 years ago- despite having raised the age and adding millions of dollars to community services.

Most importantly, now is the time to act, so that the next time we are here at a press conference, you do not hear from another mother who lost her son or daughter while we were waiting for the law to change.

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To get involved with our efforts to make sure that children are kept out of adult prisons and jails, contact Raise the Age Campaign Manager Angelo Pinto at apinto -at- correctionalassociation.org.

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