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Juvenile lifers targeted for rape, excessive isolation in adult prisons

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Juveniles doing time in adult prisons, surrounded by older and stronger criminals, rarely fare well. But juveniles serving sentences of life without parole in the United States face particularly daunting prospects of sexual assault, neglect and long periods of solitary confinement, according to a grim new report from Human Rights Watch.

There are approximately 2,750 offenders in prison in 38 states who were under the age of eighteen when sentenced to life without parole (LWOP) -- most of them for first-degree murder. Human Rights Watch considers the practice to be illegal under international law, and the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to address the constitutionality of such sentencing schemes in March. This latest study of the issue is the result of six years of research and interviews with 500 lifers sentenced when they were juveniles, including many of the 48 juvie LWOP cases in Colorado.

The organization found that nearly every LWOP offender interviewed reported instances of physical violence or sexual abuse by other inmates or corrections officers not long after their arrival in the system. One Colorado subject, identified only by a pseudonym, told the researchers: "Everyone seemed big and dangerous and threatening. I was challenged and intimidated a lot. Canines [sexual predators] stalked me, and at all times I expected to be attacked."

Because they're not eligible for parole, the LWOP group often receives fewer opportunities for education, training and other rehabilitation programs. They're also far more likely to spend extended stretches in solitary confinement, the report states; officials say they put the youthful offenders in lockdown either for their own protection from predatory older inmates or because they're more likely to "act out," having less to lose than other inmates for bad-ass behavior.

Not surprisingly, the report adds, "Youth offenders commonly reported having thoughts of suicide, feelings of intense loneliness or depression. Isolation was frequently compounded by solitary confinement." Since 2006 at least three lifers sentenced as juveniles have committed suicide.

The report includes a series of recommendations by Human Rights Watch.

View the full 53-page report on the next page. The report includes a series of recommendations by Human Rights Watch, including greater monitoring of youthful offenders, making more meaningful programs available to them and limiting the time spent in solitary confinement. For additional information about the effort to change LWOP laws, check out the work of the Denver-based Pendulum Foundation.

More from our Follow That Story archive: "Josh Beckius was sentenced to prison at sixteen -- but sixteen years later, he has a second chance."

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