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‘Cooked to Death’: Inside South Dakota's Juvenile Justice Reign of Terror

From 1996 until 2001, South Dakota Governor Bill Janklow’s juvenile justice system was reportedly a reign of terror & Native youth suffered the most.

The following is the second part of a three part series taking a look at the past, present and future of the juvenile justice system within South Dakota and how it pertains to Native youth. In this part of the series we take a look at the history of the judicial system and treatment of Native youth as a whole.

Natives in state-run juvenile detention homes face a cultural crisis everywhere, but from 1996 until 2001, South Dakota Governor Bill Janklow’s juvenile justice system was reportedly a reign of terror, and Native youth suffered the most.

Today, tribal youth on reservations have better options. Pine Ridge has its own program for youth offenders. The Rosebud Sioux Tribe’s Youth Wellness and Renew Center, also known as Wanbli Wiconi Tipi, utilizes restorative justice rather than punishment and alienation from family and community. Restorative justice brings the youth back into the community and allows them to repair relationships by making amends. In Sisseton, young Native first offenders face a teen court of their peers rather than a judge in a courtroom. If they do end up in a detention center, they have the new Young Ambassadors Leadership Program to help re-integrate them into their families and communities.

RELATED: ‘Terrible Racial Disparities’ Not Fixed With SD Juvenile Justice Reform

Things have even improved in state-run facilities, but the horrors youth suffered under Governor Janklow cannot be forgotten. His military-minded boot camps and youth prisons gave South Dakota’s Department of Corrections a lot to recover from.

History of Juvenile Justice in South Dakota

Janklow, who died January 12, 2012, was often described as having been the kind of teen who could have found himself in South Dakota’s juvenile detention programs, and had he been sent to one back then, he might have found a model program, well-known for its wilderness program and job skills training. But when Janklow, then a 16-year-old high school dropout, got into trouble, a judge recommended he join the Marines. Later, as governor, Janklow brought a more discipline-oriented, military mindset to the state’s detention homes.

He opened his first boot camp, Custer Youth Correctional Center, for boys in 1996, and in 1998, he opened a juvenile detention facility for girls known as the State Training School in Plankinton, South Dakota. Those who ended up in Custer or Plankinton faced a first day induction routine designed to overwhelm “the students with stress and anxiety,” Don Jones, a former counselor at Plankinton, said. After he viewed a videotape showing five meek teenage girls standing at attention in the Plankinton gym, staff members screaming within inches of their faces, Jones told Mother Jones. "I saw one induction, and that was enough, I thought it was barbaric."

Mother Jones says the public began to pay attention to the harsh treatment of youth in the detention homes after Gina Score, an overweight 14-year-old, died within a week of her arrival at Plankinton. Forced to make a two-mile run with the other girls, she fell to the ground and the staff refused to let the other girls help or offer her shade. Score was left lying on the ground long after the group had returned to the camp, and by the time medical staff sent an ambulance, she had turned blue and was frothing at the mouth. Score died with a body temperature of 108 degrees, and authorities said she had cooked to death.

When State Rep. Pat Haley, a former Democratic chairman of the state’s Corrections Commission began receiving complaints about boys being molested at the Custer facility, he investigated the situation, and said, “I couldn't believe what was going on."

Haley spoke with youth and staff, and even saw videotapes of youth shackled by their wrists and ankles – called four-pointing – to beds or concrete floors for as long as 24 hours a day. At Plankinton, girls who were four-pointed had their clothes cut off of them by male guards. Naked youth were pepper sprayed in their cells, and male guards were routinely present in the girls’ showers. Some youth were put into isolation in cells as small as 5’ x 10’, with a concrete bed and no mattress for as long as two weeks, according to Mother Jones and a story in the Washington Post.

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Many boys and girls reacted violently to the treatment. Some responded by rioting, slashing themselves, and trying repeatedly to commit suicide. "Kids and staff were at war with each other," says Marc Schindler, an attorney with the Youth Law Center in Washington, D.C. "They pushed and pushed the kids until all they wanted to do was resist."

Rep. Haley was clear about where the fault for these failings and abuses lay. "The culture of violence in South Dakota's juvenile facilities was not created by the kids," he said, "but by Bill Janklow."

In a Rapid City Journal story, Score’s parents said forgiveness was hard. Viola Score told the paper, "After listening to what other parents say what their kids have gone through there, I looked at my lawyer and at David [her husband] and said, 'You know what? I'm glad she died. At least I know she didn't have to go through that mental stress afterwards.'" Plankinton was closed in 2001 by the state following the acquittal of two state employees in Score’s death, but that was not the end of the juvenile justice nightmare in South Dakota. In March 2002, a bill introduced in the state legislature sought to institute performance-based standards and assessments that would moderate and hold juvenile detention facilities accountable for their treatment of the youth, but Janklow vetoed the bill.

In a Rapid City Journal article, Janklow said “it would be ‘illogical’ to require the Corrections Department to follow Performance-Based Standards when county detention centers, private group homes and out-of-state facilities that serve South Dakota children are not required to do the same.

”In articles in Mother Jones and Rapid City Journal, Janklow reportedly called the youth in detention homes “scum.” Medication as a chemical restraint and rape were reported to Jennifer Ring, director of the American Civil Liberties Union of the Dakotas.

In Winner, South Dakota schools, railroading the children into detention homes became an unofficial policy. Correspondent Ruth Steinberger wrote in a Lakota Journal article, June 14-21, 2002, that Native children were picked up from school for minor offenses such as pushing in line. In an ACLU complaint, which was the basis for the 2006 ACLU lawsuit, Antoine v. Winner, students were told by their principal they had to sign an affidavit stating what they had done, but were not allowed to explain why. In many cases, Native youth were reacting to a white child who had hit, tormented, teased, or called him a litany of racist names. The white students were never punished, but very often the Lakota youth were either given probation or sentences in detention homes. One Lakota boy was sent to a detention home for laughing when a teacher used profanity. White students also laughed but were not punished.

“Calling for the arrest of Indian children for minor misconduct is such a matter of fact part of the way white educators in Winner ‘educate’ Indian children that a 12 year old child was arrested at the request of the school principal for ‘refusing to sit where he was told,’ and for ‘making noises,’” according to Steinberger in the Lakota Journal.

A website entitled “South Dakota Hall of Shame” details the efforts of politicians and businesses that sought to reopen the Plankinton facility in 2003 and 2004, but those efforts were not successful.

Finally, the ACLU won the lawsuit, Antoine v. Winner School. In December of 2007, the federal court decreed that the school enact policies to assure that Native children were treated equitably and that their rights were not violated.

It took more than five years before Winner Schools began to cooperate with the judge’s decree, but today, a new school superintendent (Bruce Carrier since the 2011-2012 school year) has brought a strong change in attitude and an improvement in race relations -- one of the first steps was eliminating police referrals.

RELATED: Taking Racism Out of South Dakota Schools, Part 2

In October of 2002, performance-based standards were introduced in two girls detention programs in South Dakota, and today all of the state’s facilities are assessed by The Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators (CJCA). Things are much better now, especially for the non-Native youth. For Native youth? Not enough. While treatment of the youth in South Dakota’s detention homes has improved in general, Native youth arrested off the reservations are still incarcerated at greater numbers than whites, find themselves placed in detention centers too far from home for family visits, in a punitive rather than restorative system, and in a place that does not value their spirituality and cultural lifestyles.