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Allegheny detention center violates basic human rights

Credit: Simin Li/ Credit: Simin Li/

In early November, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services (DHS) was investigating Shuman Juvenile Detention Center after a possible suicide attempt at the detention center. On Sept. 30, the Department issued Shuman a second provisional license (reduced from full license), meaning it has not been in compliance with government standards for the second time and must create a plan to return to compliance. Only after a facility’s fourth consecutive provisional license can it be forced to shut down. However, the staggering degree of the actions that Shuman employees have committed against the facility’s juvenile residents bring into question whether this provisional license is an effective consequence.

There have been a variety of incidents over the past several years that illustrate the situation at Shuman. In April 2013, a worker slammed a 16-year-old into a door frame. This March, an employee grabbed and threw a resident to the floor by his neck, then proceeded to drag him along the floor by the neck. In April, a worker head-butted a resident against a wall and left him alone in his cell, unconscious, for eight minutes until a nurse arrived. And in May, two workers escalated a dispute over a bin into an attack that culminated in the near-severing of a resident’s ear. The injury needed 30 stitches, according to the DHS report, and was a “significant” factor in the second provisional license.

Even worse, is that, according to the Post-Gazette’s coverage, the average stay for residents at Shuman is 10 to 12 days. And in that short period, minors are brutalized.

Even after all of this, the DHS still allows Shuman two more attempts to solve the issues before they can be shut down. This is problematic for two reasons.

First, the DHS is placing too much responsibility on a facility that has already proven unsuccessful. The provisional license places the onus on the center to formulate a plan to right the wrong, when government intervention could help to create effective plans, and then provide the accountability to successfully implement them.

But even worse is the precedent that the system sets for the rights of prisoners as humans and citizens of this nation and commonwealth. These aren’t hard criminals being attacked and mistreated by employees — they’re minors. If these actions occurred anywhere other than a juvenile detention center, there would be public outcry. The adults responsible would be criminally charged. Even though prisoners are not afforded every constitutional freedom, they are still protected by the cruel and unusual punishment clause. Their safety, health, and decency ought to be a legal paramount for any facility with human lives in their care.

Shuman’s director Earl Hill attributed the mistreatments to problems with training employees, but more important than training alone is the act of cultivating a culture and mindset that prioritizes residents’ humanity over their criminality.