i) Expert testimony of Ana Clerico-Deutsch, psychologist In clinical encounters with some of the survivors of the fires at the Center, the witness was able to observe and evaluate the young people for the psychological and emotional harm that they suffered and continue to suffer. The trauma that these children experienced was twofold: the first was the trauma of being interned in the Center where, because of conditions there, the children endured deprivation in such areas as hygiene and food, and in other things related to daily life. The children were virtually unanimous on one point: they were treated “like animals” at the Center. The emotional and psychological impact of living in conditions of that kind is severe: children feel humiliated and degraded by the way they are treated day after day. The second trauma involves the use of corporal punishment, which the children reported was excessive and arbitrary. The corporal punishment frequently amounted to torture; for the slightest reason, the children were taken to a special room where they were tortured. This is perhaps the most extreme form of mistreatment and abuse, and these children were exposed to it every day.
Solitary confinement as a form of punishment for a juvenile is unthinkable, devastating, and utterly unacceptable. As a form of punishment, solitary confinement does nothing to modify the behavior being punished. The child will be no better off because of this form of cruel punishment. He is left alone with his own thoughts, his own anger, his own sense of defenselessness, powerless to do anything, simply biding time until that moment when he can “go crazy.” If children punished in that fashion never go to that extreme, it is because at some time in their lives, their mothers or fathers were able to provide them with the basic personality structure that prevented the psychotic break.
Torture is “the most blatant negation of the essence of the human being […] it is the ultimate in human corruption.” Torture has long-term effects that, if not treated, can have adverse consequences on one’s mental health. Those consequences are much more severe in the case of children and adolescents, because their psyches are still very vulnerable and their personalities and defense mechanisms are still not mature enough to be able to withstand torture. Another serious consequence of torture for children is that it makes them distrustful of the adult world, and they end up holding themselves in very low regard. Some said that they sometimes had suicidal thoughts.
Impotence is a common reaction to living conditions like this, to the constant fear of violence and the sense of defenselessness. The only alternative that inmates had was to watch and wait, unable to respond. This undermines their psychological equilibrium and adversely affects other functions such as the able to process knowledge and use reason; it also affects the ability to concentrate and study.
The environment that the children who lived at the Center described was a breeding ground for emotional disorders. The children had to draw upon all their mental energy to prevent a mental breakdown. This environment “breeds psychopaths.” It was a violent world that instructed these children in the ways of violence. No other environment was offered to them where they might have experienced something other than violence.
Experiences of this kind are not forgotten, as they linger in one’s memory forever. This situation can be described as one of protracted and complex trauma. In other words, this was not a single episode; it was multiple traumatic events. They lived in terror. Their situation could best be likened to “concentration camps or societies at war, where violence and the danger of violence are ever-present, and the children live in fear that they might be attacked at any time.”
It is logical to assume that this protracted and complex traumatic condition affected all the juveniles who spent any time at the Center. The traumatic consequences of this situation may or may not have been a factor contributing to the recidivism of some of these children, depending on what was available to them and what their environment outside prison was like.
Furthermore, “having no way to release these strong emotions,” the children became more violent with one another. The guards at the Center did nothing these outbreaks of violence among the juveniles. On the contrary, they punished them severely by taking them to the “torture chamber.” When children have no one to hear their problems, two scenarios ensue: episodes of violence increase among the inmates; a sense of solidarity is built up among them.
The children who were in the fire have been affected, as they came face-to-face with death. The most serious after-effect is their physical scarring, which lowers their self-esteem. They worry about having problems establishing relationships with members of the opposite sex, problems in their lives, or even whether they’ll be able to marry. All the memories and all the traumatic events are indelibly impressed upon their memories and resurface repeatedly, in a variety of situations. One such situation is when they go to sleep. One of the children said the following: “I can’t sleep because when I close my eyes I see the flames, I hear the screams of the children and I can’t sleep; I have to open my eyes to drive away all these images.”
Criminal behavior can be modified, which is what the goal of re-education centers must be. In theory, the child and adolescent have to be provided with all the means to enable them to re-learn their behaviors and become functioning members of society. Inasmuch as they are under the protection of the State, the latter is responsible for their mental health. Rehabilitation centers are supposed to provide a healthy environment. Rehabilitation implies, inter alia, re-education programs where the children are motivated to learn and to go to school, and where children have an open space. The State must make it possible for the child to develop a life plan suited to his inclinations and aspirations.
Large-scale interventions will be needed to get the juveniles who were inmates at the Center fully reincorporated into society. These children need psychological care to restore a modicum of self-esteem, in order to rebuild their personalities. They also need medical treatment for the after-effects of the fires at the Center. They also need the kind of care that will enable them to go to school or learn a trade, so that they can be fully reincorporated into society. In short, they require comprehensive care, provided by an interdisciplinary team composed of professionals of various kinds, able to deal with the problems that these children are now having.
The shift away from a system of control by force, exercised by guards, to a model that uses educators to reshape the personality, is a first step toward improving the system. Sentences that are alternatives to deprivation of liberty would be one way to avoid the trauma. When a juvenile is deprived of his liberty, “his conduct is not changed and he does not learn the difference between right and wrong.”