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12-year-old could become Pennsylvania prison's youngest inmate ever

| Saturday, June 12, 2010

INDIANA, Pa. -- The walls are thick at SCI Pine Grove, and the cell is tiny.

A small, metal bed with a 4-inch-thick mattress sits in one corner. Six feet away, a stainless steel toilet is mounted to the wall.

The cell contains a chair, a small foot locker and a sliver of a window looking out on a patch of grass and a fence topped with barbed wire. A heavy door deadbolts every night at 9 when a guard presses a button on a control panel.

This Indiana County prison cell has housed many young criminals, but no one as young as Jordan Brown, 12, of New Galilee in Lawrence County.

That might change soon.

Brown, housed now in an Erie detention center, is charged as an adult in the fatal shooting Feb. 20, 2009, of his father's fiancee, Kenzie Marie Houk, 26, and her unborn son, Christopher. Prosecutors contend Brown, then 11, placed a shotgun to the back of Houk's head as she lay in bed, pulled the trigger, put the gun away and then walked outside to catch the school bus.

A murder conviction would send Brown to SCI Pine Grove, the state prison that houses young offenders, at least until he turns 18. A first- or second-degree murder conviction would put Brown behind bars for life.

Prison officials are preparing.

"It would be a whole new experience," said Bob Behr, acting unit manager at SCI Pine Grove, who said prison officials talk informally about the possibility that Brown might become an inmate. "We've had a few 14-year-olds enter the system, but they're usually 15 or older by the time they get here.

"If he comes here, that would provide many interesting challenges."

Education a priority

Brown's backers -- who insist he is innocent -- hope it does not come to that.

In March, Lawrence County Judge Dominick Motto denied a request by defense attorneys Dennis Elisco and David Acker to transfer the prosecution to juvenile court. Under state law, juveniles must be released at age 21. The defense on Friday appealed to state Superior Court.

A conviction would send Brown to SCI Camp Hill in Cumberland County, where officials determine programs and services new inmates need, said Department of Corrections spokeswoman Susan McNaughton.

"Education is a priority," McNaughton said. "They need to finish their high school education. Or, in his case, grammar school."

From Camp Hill, Brown would transfer to SCI Pine Grove, which houses 420 young adult offenders under the age of 21.

Pine Grove, which opened in 2001, would be different from the Edmund L. Thomas Adolescent Detention Center in Erie. Officials there allow Brown's father extra visiting time and permitted a group of Brown's friends to throw him a birthday party in August, counselors have testified.

At Pine Grove, Brown would arrive on a bus, shackled, with other inmates. He would meet prison officials, fill out paperwork and be escorted to his cell, where a unit manager would explain rules such as how to dress properly and when meals are served, said unit manager Don Bachota.

Unlike other inmates, Brown would get his own cell. "Not because of what he might do, but to protect him," Bachota said. "He'll have to be treated differently. It's pretty easy to manipulate a 12- to 13-year-old."

Teaching discipline

Pine Grove spokeswoman Judy Smith said guards cite young adult inmates for misconduct an average of 40 times a month. Typical violations: entering a restricted area, refusing to follow an order, or failing to stand during a prison head count. Rarely are inmates cited for violent or drug-related misconduct, she said.

For the first three months at SCI Pine Grove, inmates go through a leadership development program that aims to teach discipline and accountability. Guards awaken them at 6 a.m. every day, put them through a military-modeled workout of push-ups, jumping jacks, crunches and stretching, and then send them to classes or counseling sessions, officials said.

Bachota said it is impossible to say exactly what kind of daily schedule officials would create for Brown because no one that young has been in the prison. Inmates get little free time, Bachota said. "They want structure," he said. "It makes them feel safe. If they don't feel safe, they'll do things to get in trouble so they don't have to come out of their cells."

Bachota has worked in the prison system more than 13 years. The youngest inmate he can remember was 14.

Young inmates do not comprehend the length of their sentences when they arrive, Bachota said.

"But after a while, some of them realize: 'I'm not going home.' It might be three years after they get here. No matter when it is, when they realize they're going to serve life in prison, they don't handle it well."

That moment would be especially difficult for someone as young as Brown because he would be dealing with other issues, such as puberty and separation anxiety, said Dr. Paul Friday, chief of clinical psychology at UPMC Shadyside.

Fostering hope

Bachota and Behr encourage "lifers" not to give up. After all, they said, forever is a long time, and things change.

"We tell them that there are no guarantees," Bachota said. "You never know what can happen. There are appeals, communications. ... You just never know."

A recent U.S. Supreme Court decision illustrates his point.

On May 17, the high court ruled it is cruel and unusual punishment to sentence young criminals to life without parole for crimes other than murder. The ruling was the second in recent years to expand constitutional protections for juveniles. Pennsylvania has no juveniles incarcerated for life on non-murder charges.

Legal observers said the ruling could clear the way for an eventual ban on life-without-parole sentences for any crime a juvenile commits.

"It's important because it reaffirmed that young people are different than adults," said Jeffrey Shook, a professor of social work at the University of Pittsburgh and expert on the juvenile justice system. "The ruling recognized that the way we punish young people has changed and gotten more severe over the years."

Additional Information:

Ages of inmates at SCI Pine Grove

16: 2 percent

17: 8 percent

18: 20 percent

19: 38 percent

20: 23 percent

21: 9 percent

Nobody younger than 16 is incarcerated SCI Pine Grove. Jordan Brown, charged as an adult with two counts of murder, is 12.

Source: SCI Pine Grove

Additional Information:

Crimes committed by inmates at SCI Pine Grove

Robbery: 43 percent

Assault: 20 percent

Drugs: 11 percent

Murder: 8 percent

Burglary: 6 percent

DUI: 5 percent

Rape: 3 percent

Property offenses: 2 percent

Kidnapping: 1 percent

Source: SCI Pine Grove

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