Shackled: A Tale of Wronged Kids, Rogue Judges, and a Town that Looked Away

Shackled: A Tale of Wronged Kids, Rogue Judges, and a Town that Looked Away

by Candy J. Cooper
Shackled: A Tale of Wronged Kids, Rogue Judges, and a Town that Looked Away

Shackled: A Tale of Wronged Kids, Rogue Judges, and a Town that Looked Away

by Candy J. Cooper


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Here is the explosive story of the Kids for Cash scandal in Pennsylvania, a judicial justice miscarriage that sent more than 2,500 children and teens to a for-profit detention center while two judges lined their pockets with cash, as told by Candy J. Cooper, an award-winning journalist and Pulitzer Prize finalist.

In the early 2000s, Judge Mark Ciavarella and Judge Michael Conahan of Luzerne County, Pennsylvania were known as no-nonsense judges. Juveniles who showed up in their courtrooms faced harsh words and even harsher sentencing. In the post-Columbine era, many people believed that was just what the county needed to ensure its children and teens stayed on the straight and narrow path. But as more and more children faced shocking sentences for seemingly benign crimes, and a newly built for-profit detention center filled up further and further, a sinister pattern of abuses and bribery emerged. Through extensive research and original reporting leading into contemporary times, award-winning journalist Candy J. Cooper tells the story of a scandal that the Juvenile Law Center calls “one of the largest and most serious violations of children’s rights in the history of the American legal system.”

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781662620133
Publisher: Astra Publishing House
Publication date: 04/02/2024
Pages: 192
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.70(d)
Lexile: 1140L (what's this?)
Age Range: 13 - 17 Years

About the Author

Candy J. Cooper is a Pulitzer Prize finalist and winner of the Selden Ring Award for Investigative Reporting. She has been a staff writer for four newspapers, including The Detroit Free Press and The San Francisco Examiner. Her work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Columbia Journalism Review and The Chronicle of Higher Education, among other publications. She is the author of Poisoned Water: How The Citizens of Flint, Michigan Fought For Their Lives and Warned the Nation, published by Bloomsbury.

Read an Excerpt

Sneering insults uttered by a judge, the rattle of leg irons across a floor, the stricken cries of a mother whose child is led away: here was a juvenile courtroom turned into a chamber of cruelty. Carisa Tomkiel, unformed and childlike at fourteen, would later remember the hard, wooden courthouse bench and her building sense of dread on that winter morning in 2005 in downtown Wilkes-Barre. She had looked around the hallway to see her accusers staring at her. She had heard the judge was hard-nosed and sent every person away. She tried to recall her parents’ advice: yes, it was wrong to scribble in Magic Marker on a couple of street signs. But it had been a minor childish stunt, and Carisa was a good kid. It was a first offense. If she took responsibility, if she was straightforward and honest and spoke to the judge with a respectful “Yes, sir” and “No, sir,” justice would prevail. She would likely be placed on probation, required to clean up the signs or abide by a curfew.
Carisa’s parents, who sat nearby, tuned in to the rhythms of the juvenile court. Like others there that winter day, they noticed the lightning speed of the proceedings. Families filed in and out of the courtroom within a period of a minute or two, as if picking up a single grocery item from the Quik Mart. And most concerning: while each family cluster filed into the courtroom together, only the parents walked out.
Where had the children gone?
Inside, children and young adults disappeared. Thousands of youths, from all corners of rolling Luzerne County in the coal- ravaged northeastern corner of Pennsylvania, passed through that courtroom door and then vanished through another portal. In between they faced a judge, Mark Ciavarella, who presided over the juvenile court of the county throughout the 2000s. He was known widely as a hanging judge, elected on a platform of zero-tolerance justice, or the idea that people, even children, deserved the harshest penalties for the most trivial mistakes. Short in stature at five foot six, trim and middle-aged with a cap of gray hair, he wore the power uniform of the court—a black judge’s robe over a shirt and tie, at times set off with a colorful sports cap. His inscrutable gaze was framed by rectangular, wire-rimmed spectacles that darkened in the sun. His pursed mouth was set in pouchy jowls, and witnesses said he sat on two phone books to elevate himself. Some found the county judge loquacious and personable. Many favored his severe, if paradoxical, approach to caring for kids. They signed on to his unyielding, old-school brand of justice.
Carisa had dressed up, wearing a stiff white blouse, dress pants, and chunky heels. Her mother had straightened her shoulder- length blond hair for the hearing. In the eighth grade, Carisa was an A and B student who had taught herself the clarinet in o rder to play in the school band. She had a best friend, Angelia, and the two were like sisters, creating their own private subculture in the dog-eat-dog hierarchy of middle school. They spent time at each other’s houses playing DanceDanceRevolution on PlayStation 2 or watching SpongeBob SquarePants cartoons. Angelia, an A student and two-time student of the month, waited nearby in the hallway of the courthouse with her mother.
Carisa wondered whether she would have a chance to explain to the court what had happened. The two girls, who liked to draw, had watched a SpongeBob episode about turning drawings into animated life. They had taken to doodling on paper, on each other’s notebooks, or right on their skin. Water-based markers washed off too quickly, so the young women found Sharpies to draw indelible watches around their wrists. And in the fall of 2004, in the midst of an explosion of graffiti appearing on nearly every public park bench, abandoned building, and playground slide in their town, the girls used their Sharpies to draw on a few street signs. To a Watch for Children sign they added, underneath, “For Michael Jackson.” On a stop sign they wrote, “Go Bush.” They thought it was funny. The scribbles were “just silly things,” Angelia later explained under oath. “Very childish things, nothing bad. Nothing gang like.”
But the rash of spray-painted graffiti around town had prompted citizen complaints and then a crackdown by local police. A classmate, while out tagging, was caught. And when police questioned him, he blamed all of the town graffiti—the bright, bold spray-painting of gang symbols, the crude drawings of genitalia, the lewd phrases—on Carisa and Angelia, the low-key duo who had little social clout at school. Soon a police officer was calling the parents of Carisa and Angelia to let them know the girls would be charged with eighty-six counts of vandalism and institutional vandalism, or essentially every instance of graffiti defacing the town of West Pittston. A ridiculous claim, Carisa first thought. But several other classmates had signed affidavits accusing Carisa and Angelia of all charges, and those girls were also milling about the court hallway now. A councilperson was there to testify against them, too. Carisa’s stomach lurched, as if she were climbing the steepest rise of the world’s tallest roller coaster, minus that weightless thrill on the way down. She just wanted the moment to end.
Carisa and Angelia were but two. Many thousands of youths appeared before Judge Ciavarella during his time on the court from 1996 to 2009, entering one courtroom door, disappearing through another. In between, the man in the robe redirected young lives like a sorting wizard, with a booming voice and a stream of schoolyard sneers and put-downs. “Shut up,” he ordered  the mother of a teen he was jailing, threatening to lock her up, too. “You sit down and you shut up!” he snapped at a substance abuse counselor defending a first-time offender in a marijuana case. “What makes you think you can do this kind of crap?” he yelled at a teenager at the start of her hearing.
He turned his courtroom into spectacle. The hearings by state law should have been closed, yet field trips of twenty to twenty- five schoolchildren jammed into the courtroom jury box to watch the drama. Teachers made arrangements with the judge personally for the tours as warnings to their students. The longtime chief of juvenile probation later remarked on the quickness of the hearings. “Zip, zip,” she said. “That was it.” The judge, after all, often heard twenty cases in a single morning, and court workers said he sometimes mentioned an afternoon tee time at the golf club.
The same probation chief described courtroom “antics,” including Ciavarella’s irrepressible passion for organized sports, interwoven with the serious business of juvenile justice. Wearing a NASCAR hat on the bench, with nervous families before him, Ciavarella paused proceedings to collect sports wagers from courtroom workers. “And then in the next breath conducting a hearing and sending their child away,” said the juvenile probation chief, Sandra Brulo, under oath. “I had a lot of concern about that.” The judge asked one young woman which team she favored in a baseball game. She chose the wrong team, in his view, so he sent her back to detention for another six months. On another day, because he was in a good mood, Ciavarella sent a fifteen-year-old home. “He let me go because he won a bet [on] a football game,” she later recalled. “He was feeling nice he said.”
On that cold day in 2005, the chaotic atmosphere in the low- ceilinged courtroom at Penn Place, a flat-roofed, flat-sided, brick behemoth in downtown Wilkes-Barre, promised anything but mercy. Carisa and Angelia stood before Ciavarella with their parents and a lawyer in a hearing that played out like a kangaroo court. The adult witness, the councilman, was unable to identify Carisa or Angelia. The remaining statements were deemed hearsay. The judge was highly distracted, and Angelia’s mother later described the experience, from the moment of her daughter’s arrest, as “such a crazy case” because she had been forewarned, actually threatened by the arresting police officer, that a football game might determine the girls’ fate.
“The officer had told us that if she [Angelia] didn’t plead guilty to every single charge,” she later said under oath, “that he was going to make sure [she] got to see Judge Ciavarella on a day that Penn State had lost the previous weekend, because Judge Ciavarella will send all of them to jail if Penn State loses.”
And Carisa, too, later remembered that Ciavarella chatted idly with others in the courtroom about possible game outcomes. “It could’ve been a Penn Super Bowl that year if the Steelers played the Eagles,” was the gist of the conversation, she later remembered. “He went off topic and started shooting the breeze with other cops there and bailiffs or whoever they were.”
Angelia later recalled that “I didn’t feel like it was taken very seriously at all. So instead of listening to our case we were talking about football.”
And yet, no matter how unfitting or incorrect the judge’s banter, how degrading the remarks, how senseless the rulings, a gaping silence hung over the courtroom, a strange indifference, a mass act of complicity seized the many dozens of professional adults who milled about in the business-as-usual atmosphere akin to a bustling marketplace. These silent witnesses included probation and police officers, social workers, court reporters, and the judge’s administrative staff. Also present were members of the Pennsylvania bar, including assistant district attorneys, public defenders, and local private defense attorneys—all sworn to uphold laws that protect children and youth and to report infractions that might harm them.
No one objected when Ciavarella instituted a drill. As families stepped off a third-floor elevator, they were met by a probation w orker sitting behind a table. The worker’s job was to persuade an accused youth and “advising adult” to sign a form or “waiver of counsel.” By signing, the family agreed to give up all rights to a lawyer, either one they paid for or one the court appointed. Many youths and families signed without a thought, as if signing in at a doctor’s office, or simply stating what was at that moment true—they did not have a lawyer. It didn’t mean they didn’t want one.
The waiver helped court proceedings move swiftly. But it violated the law, which in Pennsylvania required a judge to conduct an out-loud, in-court, face-to-face, on-the-record conversation with a young defendant known as a “colloquy,” so that the accused youth fully understood the unfamiliar legal words that described the rights they would give up by facing the judge alone. That clerk at the elevator with the written waiver, it turned out, was a trick.
The result was that more than half of child defendants faced the judge alone, left to interpret a load of legal jargon foreign to their ears. What was that waiver, anyway? What did it mean, legally, to admit to being guilty? Most adults didn’t understand the law school words pinging around the courtroom. Children certainly did not. But lawyers did.
Many juvenile courtrooms refuse to allow children and youths to appear in court without lawyers. But Ciavarella’s courtroom used the clerk with the waiver. And without legal counsel, most children skipped straight to pleading “guilty,” thinking it might soften the judge and lessen their punishment. But admitting to guilt meant giving up the right to a trial where a child might present evidence of good character, high grades, college prospects. It meant giving up the right to question witnesses who might be lying, or to call experts who could put the child’s behavior into context by describing, say, an abusive home life, or the death of a parent, or family poverty, and how best to help.
Instead, families signed the waiver and handed their fate to the judge. The judge sent the children through the mystery door.
Carisa and Angelia listened as Ciavarella judged the two girls “delinquent,” or guilty, of eighty-six counts of vandalism. In the next breath he imposed their sentence: an indefinite stay at a wilderness camp that relied on extreme discipline and boot camp-like drills. With those words the girls heard a rattling sound from a corner of the courtroom. Soon a court worker appeared holding two medieval- looking sets of shackles. The worker enchained Carisa and Angelia like cartoon criminals—wrapping heavy leather belts around their narrow waists; snapping iron handcuffs to their child-size wrists; and clamping leg irons around their slender ankles. The girls looked to their stunned parents. The court worker turned the girls away. Ciavarella called the next case. The girls clomped in their high-heeled dress shoes past the judge’s bench and toward the door.
Carisa felt a terror that lodged in her gut. Where were they going? Why were they in chains and stumbling away from their families? It was as if she and Angelia were murderers, not sign scribblers.
The girls were led into a stuffy cell-like room and fastened to a metal bench with other shackled children. Back in the courtroom, Angelia’s mother panicked. She ran out the door and to the probation department to explain that her daughter was an epileptic and needed close medical supervision. She had not expected that Angelia would be sent from the courtroom directly to a far-flung wilderness program. She needed to go home to pick up her daughter’s medication.
“Nope,” the head of probation told her, “she has to go now.”
“But you don’t understand,” Angelia’s mother pleaded. “If you don’t let her take her medicine she will go into a seizure.”
Later that morning Carisa and Angelia were led, handcuffed, to a transport where a driver planted Angelia in a back seat and Carisa in the passenger seat and insisted on silence. Carisa had never been away from home before. The car hurtled past long stretches of gray monotone rural winter scenery and Carisa wondered, Was this New York? New Jersey? Still Pennsylvania?
An impressive range of investigating experts would later probe how or why Carisa and Angelia’s story repeated itself day after day over the course of more than five years in the early 2000s in Luzerne County. Why did a community let a judge enchain and detain its children and youth over childish and youthful misdoings? Why did professionals watch and say nothing? Researchers have studied silence throughout history, as well as the horrors that can unfold when witnesses look away.
Yet what professionals ignored and experts later decried, some parents felt almost instantly. Something was wrong. Carisa’s mother, Andrea Tomkiel, knew that much as she watched Carisa and Angelia shuffle out of the courtroom, dragging their irons across the floor like child ghosts in a horror movie.
“You guys are all corrupt!” Andrea Tomkiel shouted at Ciavarella. The courtroom broke into applause. The judge threatened to jail Andrea Tomkiel for ninety days. Her lawyer tried to silence her. Her husband had warned her about standing up to authority.
“You’re crooked!” she called out anyway, “every one of you!”

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