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Turning Tony into Tonya

Juveniles raped in adult prison face ‘death sentence’ of HIV

(by Jens Soering, National Catholic Reporter, November 19, 2004)

Tony was the prettiest serial killer I ever met. Sixteen years old, with long blond hair, creamy white skin and a slim, trim figure, he drove all the adult convicts wild with lust as soon as he stepped into the C-Unit dayroom. Best of all, Tony had already been “broken in” at the county jail before his trial, so he knew what to expect and even showed some enthusiasm. Good playacting at the right moment meant a steady supply of cigarettes and other gifts from his suitors -- that much he had already figured out.

By the time I met Tony five years later, he had professionalized his approach to penitentiary love and now preferred to be called Tonya. Every Thursday was commissary day, so he dolled himself up with plucked eyebrows and lipstick and “Daisy Duke” short-shorts. If you brought him two packs of menthols from the canteen, he was yours for half an hour.

He laughed at his customers, Tony told me, because they were paying him to kill them: He was HIV-positive, like so many inmates. Long ago, one of the convicts who had forced sex on him had infected him, and now he was intentionally passing that death sentence on to as many other prisoners as he could. Sweet revenge!

Not that this scheme of mass murder by virus excited him -- he was much too blasé for that by now. Killing people was simply one of several projects he undertook each day, alongside doing his laundry and acquiring a new supply of rouge and half a dozen other tasks.

By now Tony is back in your world. He finished his sentence in 2001. I called him a serial killer in the opening sentence only because that is what he became in prison. Before his arrest and incarceration, he had been a fairly average 16-year-old Army brat who, unfortunately, had stabbed another kid on high school property at a time when school shootings were a major news item. So the prosecutor tried Tony as an adult for malicious wounding -- “Tough on crime!” -- and a bunch of sex-starved convicts got a new toy for a few years. A lethal toy. A toy that is back on your streets now.

Tony’s story is far from rare in a correctional system that houses 2.1 million inmates nationally. During a hearing on the Prison Rape Reduction Act in July 2002, a former state attorney general testified that “anywhere from 250,000 to 600,000” prisoners were forced to have sex against their will each year. The result is an HIV infection rate of at least 8.5 percent in New YorkU.S. population is 0.3 percent. state’s correctional system, which tests its inmate population more rigorously than others. By comparison, the estimated infection rate for the civilian

Judging by my 18 years of penitentiary experience, those 250,000 to 600,000 inmate rape victims include nearly all juveniles like Tony who are sent to adult facilities. There were 14,500 such boys and girls held in adult jails and prisons in 1997, the last year for which total figures are available. Given the significant growth in the U.S. correctional population since then, that number is certainly higher today.

All 50 states currently allow at least some defendants under age 18 to be handled by the adult criminal justice system. A 16-year-old in prison is automatically a “boy” -- penitentiary slang for sex slave. And once he has been infected with HIV, he is a dead boy. So the prosecutorial decision to apply for a juvenile-to-adult court transfer in a given criminal case almost always amounts to the de facto imposition of capital punishment on the underage defendant.

What is so terribly sad is that the execution-by-inmate-rape of thousands upon thousands of juveniles in America’s adult prisons is completely unnecessary. It is simply not true that juvenile offenders cannot be rehabilitated. In the federally supervised Violent Juvenile Offender Program, for example, skilled case managers in Detroit and Boston helped youths leaving prison to find jobs and to develop positive social relationships in a “graduated reentry.” This holistic approach lowered recidivism rates consistently and significantly even for the toughest of inner city youths.

The key to all successful therapeutic and rehabilitative programs is emphasis on the youth’s social environment instead of his or her deficiencies only. If a young delinquent’s single mother is addicted to drugs and suffering from clinical depression, for instance, treatment team members ensure that the parent gets counseling and social service support and thus becomes able to provide the nurture her child needs.

Yet 60 percent of state juvenile justice spending goes to house youthful offenders in institutions while only 4 percent of funds are devoted to aftercare treatment. In fact, half of America’s juvenile prisons do not even provide those minimal correctional education services mandated by state and federal law -- never mind any kind of therapy. And for those youthful offenders sent to adult penitentiaries like Tony, the situation is even grimmer: 26 percent of them are released without so much as a ninth-grade education, and 90 percent leave prison without a high school diploma or GED.

What they do take with them when they return to society is a history of horrific abuse by adult inmates and, almost certainly, a fatal illness: HIV. If there is any way of further increasing their chances of re-offending, I cannot imagine what that might be. But the gut-level satisfaction of trying juveniles as adults must be worth this price. It must be -- or why else would we continue to allow our nation’s court and prison systems to turn thousands of Tonys into Tonyas each year?

Jens Soering is a prisoner in the Virginia Department of Corrections. He has served 18 years of two life sentences for murder. Soering is the author of An Expensive Way to Make Bad People Worse: An Essay on Prison Reform from an Insider’s Perspective.

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