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27 February 2024 SHACKLED: A TALE OF WRONGED KIDS, ROGUE JUDGES, AND A TOWN THAT LOOKED AWAY by Candy J. Cooper, Astra/Calkins Creek, April 2024, 192p., ISBN: 978-1-6626-2013-3


“Tiny Luzerne County [Pennsylvania] comprised less than 3 percent of the state’s population in 2003–but was responsible for 22 percent of juvenile placements statewide.”


“Yes, and how many times can a man turn his head

And pretend that he just doesn't see?”

– Bob Dylan (1963)


“Despite the judge’s skewed data and his strong public support, social science research was at the same time exposing the profound and lasting harms of placing non-violent young people under lock and key. Studies showed that ripping children from home, even for a few days, can lead to profound trauma in the short and long term. Long-term studies of children in detention showed harms in adulthood by any measure, from school performance to employment success to emotional security, psychological well-being, and criminal behavior. Imprisoning kids stunted their growth and robbed them of the trial and error of making decisions and mistakes–the building blocks of becoming autonomous adults. And dropping children into a criminal subculture was like lowering them into a lion’s maw. Once locked up, young detainees became cut off from the supports of school, family, work, or community. Kid prison was like crime school, and to survive it, kids studied that world. They formed alliances. Once released, they were physically freed but often psychologically stuck in a delinquent identity that followed them into adulthood, leading straight to the doors of adult prison.”


As one reads SHACKLED, it is essential to keep in mind that this true story involved thousands of now-grown, real-life kids. So many of these young lives were totally and irrevocably screwed over by the monetary greed of a couple of low-life judges–and the other adults who should have said something but didn’t. That some of the kids subsequently became adult criminals BECAUSE of their incarceration, means that the number of victims continue to grow to this day.


The fix was in. It didn’t really matter what a young person had done. The judges developed a system in which kids and parents were frequently conned into giving up their legal/constitutional rights in the courtroom. Then the judge would go through an oh-so-brief, pro forma “hearing” that would quickly lead to a kid (and the next, and the next, and the kid after that) being placed in handcuffs and leg irons and transported to the private juvenile facility. 


Judge Mark Ciavarella and his partner-in-crime President Judge Michael Conahan rode roughshod over the law, and scammed like the Dickens, in order to get that private detention facility constructed by their co-conspirators. They then reaped millions of dollars in kickbacks from populating the facility with kids who had done next to nothing but had the bad luck of showing up in Ciavarella’s courtroom. Yes, this disgusting duo made money for each and every kid they consigned to the private juvenile facility. The longer the kids were unfairly and unmercifully stuck in there, the more money the judges and their buddies pocketed.


“Three days after Pennsylvania Child Care opened, Ciavarella issued another command to widen his dragnet: all youths who violated their probation were to be locked up, no matter how incidental the violation–missed curfew, a failed marijuana test, or tardiness to court-ordered community service or counseling. And once in lockup, a child’s stay could lengthen interminably, becoming a virtual ringing cash register as the days accrued. Ciavarella often ordered psychological evaluations, which might mean weeks of waiting for the appointment with the court psychologist, who happened to be a [Judge] Conahan relative later outed by the state for overcharging and submitting reports that were comprised of the same boilerplate language, cut and pasted over and over again. One report contained the wrong name of the youth being evaluated.”


Author Candy J Cooper includes brief profiles of some of the young people whose minor, victimless misdeeds landed them in former Judge Mark Ciavarella’s courtroom, and who were then promptly sent off to the kid jail. The victims here were the so-called young perpetrators themselves–kids who, for example, had scribbled goofy words on street signs, or had gotten into a fight at school. There were kids who were actually locked up behind bars for extended periods, and their lives utterly trashed, for jaywalking or for swearing or for stealing a frigging Hershey’s bar of chocolate! [Can you believe this sh–?] 


These victims were contemporaries of my own kids. It could so easily have been one of mine or one of yours in those handcuffs and leg irons, locked away and messed up permanently so the judges could make another couple of bucks a day off of each of them.


Of course, there wouldn’t be a story here had it not been for the watchdogs, journalists, and others of good character who began probing the boatloads of bucks suddenly being spent on incarcerating kids in Luzerne County. It took years (and the FBI’s involvement) to finally surmount the obstacles and smokescreens thrown up, but eventually the corruption was exposed. This is the point in the book where you finally breathe a sigh of relief. 


The book concludes with a look at how in many parts of the country, over the past couple of decades, juvenile justice has significantly evolved for the better. 


I often read memorable pieces of children’s fiction that make me tear up. But that reaction is a far cry from the depth of pain and heartache I feel in this moment for the thousands of kids so badly hurt by this hellish scheme. Yes, indeed, there were multiple kids who committed some minor indiscretion and eventually killed themselves after their tortuous experiences in that juvenile jail. Those two SOB judges only got a fraction of the punishment they truly merited–they should have really been made to suffer like their victims had–but, at least, the abuse in Luzerne County was finally uncovered and halted. 


Let’s hope that this important and profound piece of nonfiction inspires some young people to become activists and to get involved in one of the many fields that relate to the story–education, the judicial system, psychology, journalism, etc. 


Given the quality of the research and writing here, it’s not surprising that the author has previously been a Pulitzer Prize finalist. She sure as hell deserves an award for this one. From cover to cover, SHACKLED is a stellar read and an absolute must-have for all those serving tweens and teens.


Richie Partington, MLIS

Richie's Picks http://richiespicks.pbworks.com





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