The Mothers Who Lost Their Children To Prisons

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From Refinery 29 :

“I just want to start from, I guess, what happened at the end,” Alicia Barraza said softly into the microphone. “On October 30 of 2014, we lost our 21-year-old son when he took his own life at Fishkill Correctional Facility.”Standing at thepodium of a press conference at the state capital in Albany, NY, just two days after Mother’s Day, Barraza said that she believed New York’s practice of charging teenagers as adults helped lead to her son’s death.

“I think that if Ben had not been charged as an adult, he might very well be alive today,” she said.

Barraza is one of 45 mothers, activists, and lobbyists who joined the Correctional Association of New York and the nonprofit, Families Together, in Albany in hopes of persuading legislators to raise the age at which children are tried as adults. Refinery29 accompanied the group onitsmission to tell elected officials how the policy had affected their own families.”There’s probably no more powerful voice [than a mother's voice],” Soffiyah Elijah, executive director of the Correctional Association of New York, explained. “To have the voices of mothers who literally carried and gave birth and raised children who are now subjected to horrible abuses at the hands of the state, is a very important part of the advocacy work.”

New York is one of two states where 16-year-olds are automatically tried as adults, the other being North Carolina. That means that, anyone over that age, if arrested, will be sent through the adult court system. It means that if they are found guilty, they will be sent to adult facilities, where they will be housed with grown men and women. It means that once they are released, their criminal records will not sealed and will follow them for the rest of their lives.Across the country, there are an estimated 10,000 minors in adult facilities on any given day, according to the Equal Justice Initiative. Seven states consider 17-year-olds as adults in criminal justice proceedings. All 50 states allow juveniles to be transferred to adult court under certain conditions, often in regard to factors such as the seriousness of the crime. As of 2014, 22 states had at least one provision that allowed juveniles to be transferred to adult court without a minimum age requirement.

Barraza’s son, Ben Van Zandt, was only 17 years old in 2010, when his then-undiagnosed mental illness led him to set a fire in an empty home while the family was away on vacation. The house was nearly destroyed. He was arrested, and because he was considered an adult, his parents weren’t allowed to accompany him to the precinct. Within two hours, Van Zandt had signed a confession, apparently in the belief that the authorities would then help him with his mental health issues. He was sentenced to four to 12 years in prison and placed in an adult facility.

Over the next few years, Van Zandt was moved from facility to facility, given inconsistent access to treatment for his depression and psychosis, and sexually assaulted, according to his mother. After being accused of fighting with another prisoner in 2014, he was sent to solitary confinement. Van Zandt committed suicide shortly after.Van Zandt’s parents have since filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the New York State Office of Mental Health and State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, alleging “inadequate, improper, and unsafe” medical care and supervision. Both organizations declined to comment on the lawsuit to Refinery29, citing laws regarding patient privacy, and stating that it was policy not to comment on pending litigation.

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