Photographed by Mary Ellen Mark Photo Editor: Ian Spanier
Alabama’s Chalkville juvenile institution was supposed to “turn around” troubled girls sent away for crimes like shoplifting. Instead, it subjected them to assault and sexual abuse at the hands of the guards. Now, the girls are fighting back.
Amanda, and Alana are now determined to reform the juvenile-justice system that wronged them.
From the outside, Alabama's only state juvenile institution for girls might be mistaken for a prim, private day school. Set far off the road in a wooded, middle‑class Birmingham suburb, the beige‑stone buildings create a tidy enclave that blends in nicely with the nearby churches and shops. There are no guard towers, no menacing barbed‑wire fences. Even the facility's "welcome" booklet, distributed to the troubled teenagers who are sent here to the Alabama Youth Services/ Chalkville Campus, has a cheery tone. The girls are referred to as "students;" the guards are called "staff members." "We, the staff; are going to provide an opportunity and environment for you to gain effective control over your life," the introduction reads. "All the staff wants to do is help you."
The teens, sent here by family‑court judges for things like truancy, shoplifting, and drug possession, are in desperate need of such caring guidance. Yet, at least 100 Chalkville girls charge they got no such thing: They allege that between January 1993 and June 2001, they were viciously mistreated. Since June of last year, 40 of those teenagers have filed federal lawsuits against the state's Department of Youth Services, its administrators, and several guards. The suits contend that, among other things, the girls were sexually assaulted, strip‑searched by male guards, beaten, capriciously tossed into solitary confinement, denied medical attention, pressured to have abortions, and threatened with retaliation if they complained.
Take the case of Sandy Jones. Until recently, the nervous 19‑year‑old couldn't bear to tell even her own mother about what had happened to her. After entering Chalkville five years ago for being expelled from school and running away from home, she says a guard came into her room one night with a proposition. "He said if I had sex with him, I could get out [of the facility] early."
The offer wasn't a complete shock: Sandy had already heard that Chalkville guards offered such bargains, and that many students traded sexual favors for small pleasures, such as snacks and cigarettes. Desperate to visit her terminally ill grandmother, Sandy agreed to sleep with the guard. "I had sex with him," she says, "but I didn't want to."
She immediately regretted it. When the guard began to return to her room regularly, she refused his advances. But her roommate did not. At night, Sandy tried to sleep while they had sex in the bed next to hers; during the day, the guard punished her for rejecting him, piling on work and extra exercises.
Sandy endured this treatment -along with propositions from other male staffers- throughout her 10‑month stay. She says she and others repeatedly reported the situation to the superintendent, "but he didn't believe us. There was nothing more we could do."
Sandy's grandmother died the day she left Chalkville. "That hurt," Sandy says. "I thought about everything I did to get to see her. It still upsets me, but I try to hold my head up, because it's in the past."
But these events will not stay in the past for long. As the lawsuits from the girls of Chalkville plod through the legal system, a courtroom showdown looms. And it will be there that the state of Alabama will have to give Sandy, and others like her, an answer to a burning question: How could a system set up to protect and rehabilitate troubled girls wind up being used as a weapon against them?
Sitting stiffly in a friend's apartment in which she's temporarily living, 19‑year‑old Tamara Franklin frowns when she hears the name Chalkville. Sent there at 16 for truancy, drinking, and drug use, she was halfway through her seven-month sentence when she became friendly with Peter Aseme, a 41‑year‑old shift supervisor. Aseme would stand in the doorway of Tamara's single room, gently asking her about her family and problems. Three years before, her mother had left Tamara and eight other children in the care of her father, who could not handle the responsibility. Tamara craved the attention Aseme lavished upon her. "He was nice," she says simply. "The people at Chalkville treat you like you're nothing, just because you're locked up. But he treated me differently."
One night, after lights‑out, Aseme entered Tamara's room. They talked quietly for a while, and when Aseme leaned in to kiss her, Tamara didn't protest. When he asked her to go further, she agreed. "At the time, I wanted to do it," she says. "We were just friends. And then we started being something else."
Tamara hid the illicit romance from the other girls. "It felt really weird," she admits. "It was something I had no business doing. But it gave me a little rush." The initial thrill gave way to strong emotions, and Tamara continued seeing Aseme even after leaving Chalkville three months later. "I really thought I was in love with him," she says bitterly.
Tamara's opinion changed when she heard that Aseme had also seduced other girls in Chalkville. "I honestly believed I was the only one he was with," she says. "He messed with my mind, bad. Now he just makes me sick." Aseme maintains that he and Tamara didn't start a relationship until after she'd left Chalkville.
Tamara broke up with the guard last February, only to discover a few weeks later that she was pregnant. She is suing Chalkville, and suing Aseme for paternity. "It's a sorry program," she says of the facility. "They need to hire people qualified to work with young girls‑not people who act as young as the girls themselves."
Much of the abuse reported by Chalkville girls centers around neglect. Amanda Twitty, 20, entered the facility at 17 for multiple probation violations. But she says that before she got there she had been diagnosed with cervical cancer, and that the staff refused to let her keep a previously scheduled doctor's appointment. She says her subsequent requests for medical attention were ignored‑as were her complaints about abdominal pain during daily physical training. "The exercises made my stomach hurt even more," she says. "I'd be doubled over in pain. It felt like I had my period 24 hours a day, seven days a week."
“I was in pain, and the guards called me a crybaby.” –Amanda, 20
Amanda says alerting the staff to her pain often resulted in punishment. "The guards would call me a crybaby and tell me to get up," she says. "If I said anything, they'd make me do even more push‑ups."
Amanda was finally allowed to see a doctor ‑four months later‑ but she wasn't brought back for a necessary follow‑up visit. By the time she finally got the treatment she needed, after leaving Chalkville in August 1999, it had been more than six months since she'd been diagnosed with a potentially deadly disease. While Amanda is healthy today, she can't forget her mistreatment. "I've had nightmares ever since," she says. "I wake up crying and screaming. It was awful."
Alana Williams, 17, laughs bitterly as she recalls the friendly front the Chalkville staff put on. "They were not my friends," she says sarcastically. "More like my enemies."
“I begged, ‘Please don’t send me back there.’” –Alana, 17
Alana was sent to the facility at 13 to serve a four‑and‑a‑half‑month stint for repeated truancy. She spent her first day there being called a "cocky little heifer" and "bad‑ass" by the staff. Alana eventually snapped at a staff member and so she spent her first night at Chalkville in solitary confinement. As the door slammed behind her, she says three guards‑two men and one woman‑began shouting at her through a tiny Plexiglas window. They said she was on suicide watch and demanded she turn over any clothing she might use to hang herself. "They told me to take off my pants, bra, and underwear," Alana says, her voice dropping to a whisper. "They said, 'Do it or we'll take them from you."
Clad in only a T‑shirt, the 13‑year‑old spent the night on the cold, bare floor. Although she repeatedly asked to use the bathroom, the guards refused. Desperate, she urinated in the garbage can. She was later cited for vandalism.
Alana struggled through her stint at Chalkville and was relieved to return home to her mother, Wanda. But, after violating her probation in 2000, Alana was ordered back. She became agitated, volunteering to spend nine years under house arrest instead. "I begged the judge, 'Please don't send me back there," she says.
Suspicious, Wanda confronted Alana, who revealed everything. Wanda was outraged. She felt she'd been misled by the court system that had sent Alana away. "They told me they'd get her help," says Wanda, "that Chalkville wasn't like a criminal facility."
But it was too late: Alana was sent back to Chalkville, and for seven months, Wanda Williams complained to facility administrators about Alana's mistreatment. "The superintendent told me I was being a hysterical mother," she says.
Undeterred, Wanda badgered state officials. "These girls are not Snow Whites," she acknowledges. "But they're children. The staff should have known better."
Last May, as Wanda's one-mother crusade made its way to the governor's office, family-court judge Jack Hughes learned that a Chalkville student had become pregnant by a staff member. The judge sent investigators to interview four girls he had previously placed in the facility. Each one reported conditions that seemed right out of the pages of Charles Dickens. "All of their statements were basically the same," Judge Hughes says today. "We were shocked."
A chance for justice
The judge removed the four girls from the facility, and the state opened an investigation. Within a month, 15 Chalkville employees were suspended ‑including Peter Aseme. In the weeks that followed, 15 more teenagers were removed from the facility by other judges, and Amnesty International pressured Alabama governor Don Siegelman to implement measures to minimize the possibility of future abuses‑including employing a majority of female guards in the facility.
As the scandal broke, Wanda Williams finally saw a chance for justice. "I hired lawyers to bring attention to the situation," she says. "I wanted to shut that place down." Four mother‑daughter pairs joined the Williams' lawsuit, which has merged with two other suits and now has 40 plaintiffs.
Lawyers have asked for $171 million in damages, hoping the large sum will expose conditions at Chalkville and other juvenile facilities in which girls are abused, seduced, and hardened even further. "This just needs to stop," says Ron Marlow, the Williams' attorney.
Some changes have already been made at Chalkville: A new administrator is in charge, and 11 of the 15 staff members suspended‑including Aseme ‑have been dismissed. (Four staff members were cleared; Aseme is appealing his termination.) "We're taking steps to get to a position where it won't ever occur again," says Allen Peaton, spokesman for the Department of Youth Services.
Wanda Williams hopes so. "This is a state‑run facility," she says. "Our daughters were supposed to be safe there."
WHY ARE SO MANY WOMEN IN PRISON ABUSED
The appalling conditions a Chalkville mirror the treatment of females in detention nationwide: A 2001 report by Amnesty International found rampant sexual abuse and misconduct against the 148,200 women and girls incarcerated in the U.S. The fact that 70 percent of guards in federal women's institutions are male only compounds the problem.
The situation has the potential to get worse as more girls enter the juvenile‑justice system. According to joint report by the American Bar Association and the National Bar Association, delinquency cases involving girls soared 83 percent between 1988 and 1997; in 1999, 670,800 under the age of 18 were arrested in the U.S.
Francine Sherman, director of the Juvenile Rights Advocacy Project at Boston College Law School, says teenage girls are particularly vulnerable to mistreatment. "They come into the system already traumatized," she says, pointing out that a staggering 70 percent of jailed young women have suffered some form of childhood abuse. Usually lacking good role models, these girls find that getting friendly with a guard helps fulfill their need for human connection. 'It's a feature of female adolescent development that they are looking for a relationship," she says. And it's the responsibility of those in control to make sure they're not exploited."
Currently, 47 states have laws prohibiting contact between people in custody and guardians. (In some cases‑but no all- these laws include juvenile detention facilities.) Alabama, Vermont, and Oregon are the three that don't. Yet even with such laws in place, mistreatment continues, says Brenda V. Smith, a professor at University Washington College of Law in Washington, DC. Perhaps because the victims are unsympathetic in the eyes of the law‑abiding public, 'enforcement of these laws," she laments, 'is lethargic at best.”
WHAT YOU CAN DO
• Write members of the Alabama legislature urging them to pass‑and enforce‑a law prohibiting sexual contact between women and their jailers. For addresses, log on to www.legislature.state.al.us.
• To find out how to help improve conditions for girls in the criminal‑justice system, contact the Girls' Justice Initiative at (617) 552‑2530.
• For updates on the treatment of women in custody, or to donate money, contact Amnesty International at wvvw.amnestyusa.org/women/custody/abuseincustody.html.