The Case for Abolishing Juvenile Prisons

by Sara Mayeux


Last month, archaeologists identified the first of the fifty-five human bodies recently exhumed at Florida’s Dozier School for Boys — a now-shuttered juvenile prison where, for decades, guards abused children, sometimes to death, despite cyclical scandals and calls for reform spanning almost a hundred years. Dozier represents an atrocious extreme, but the failures of America’s juvenile justice system are widespread. Whether labeled “boot camps,” “training schools,” “reformatories,” or other euphemisms, juvenile prisons have long harbored pervasive physical and sexual abuse. In one survey, twelve percent of incarcerated youth reported being sexually abused in the previous year — a figure that likely understates the problem.

During the “tough-on-crime” years of the eighties and nineties, states confined larger numbers of children than ever before, with the proportion of youth in prison reaching an all-time high in 1995. Since then, the tide has turned. Between 1997 and 2010, the rate of youth confinement dropped forty percent nationwide, partly because of declining crime rates, but also because of changes in how states respond to youth misbehavior. Fueled by a mix of family advocacy, costly lawsuits, scandals like the Dozier case, and recession-era pressures on state budgets, many states have enacted reforms to transfer youth out of statewide institutions into community-based programs. California, for instance, “realigned” its juvenile justice system in the aughts; New York passed similar legislation in 2012 and has recently closed several juvenile prisons, including the once-notorious Tryon Residential Center.

Even with recent declines, the United States still incarcerates tens of thousands of teenagers — about two hundred of every hundred thousand kids. (State-by-state data is available here.) Racial disparities are stark: Black kids are locked up at four times the rate of white kids. And forty percent of youth held in residential facilities are there for lower-level offenses like probation violations, nonviolent property crimes, and truancy.

In her recent book, Burning Down the House, journalist Nell Bernstein argues that juvenile prisons should be abolished altogether. “Bart Lubow at the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which supported this book, talks about the ‘my child’ test,” Nell told me. When reading about conditions in juvenile prisons, “we should ask ourselves, Would this be acceptable for my child if he had committed a very serious crime? If the answer is no, we have a moral responsibility to stop it. I have two thirteen-year-olds, so I think about that a lot.” I recently spoke to Bernstein about her book.

You don’t propose any reforms in your book because you say this is a system that can’t be reformed; it needs to be shut down. Did you come into writing the book with that position, or was it a conclusion you came to over time?

I tried to come in with a reporter’s open mind. But I have known kids who’ve been in this system for decades, so I did come in believing, from my own experience, that prison was a consistently damaging intervention that tended to make things worse for kids rather than better. Where my mind got pushed was when I began to delve into the research. Eighty to ninety percent percent of all kids, according to confidential interviews, have done something that could land them locked up. So that underscored the racial — I don’t even like to say disparities — the racism of what’s going on. My kid can do this; my neighbor’s kid can’t. And of course Ferguson has brought that into incredibly stark relief.

If you look at those eighty to ninety percent of kids who are all committing “delinquent acts,” it turns out that those who don’t get caught — because there aren’t police cruising their street and stopping them — or who do get caught, but are offered an intervention other than incarceration, tend to do very well. They basically grow out of it. Kids who are incarcerated, the chance that they will go on to be incarcerated as adults is doubled.

When you look at it through that frame, it’s just nuts. We’re taking the most vulnerable, oppressed group of kids in our country, and selectively subjecting them to an intervention that is known to turn them into criminals. The research helped me to understand that it’s not that we have two groups of kids, “delinquents” and “not delinquents” — delinquency is a developmental stage, and we can either help kids through and out of it, or we can do what we’re doing now, which is intervene in a way that keeps them stuck there forever.

So one issue is teenagers getting selectively punished for doing things that all teenagers do. But what about kids who have done something really serious?

I don’t think they’re two separate issues, because there aren’t many kids for whom a homicide or a carjacking is a first offense. Almost every kid I met, including those who were in for the most serious offenses, had started out at nine, ten, eleven, usually having suffered some kind of a traumatic loss, trying to make their own way on the street, and getting picked up for something very minor. The behaviors that lead to the more serious acts are often learned behind bars.

Nevertheless, there’s no ducking the question of what we do with the kid who actually endangers us. If you’ve read the book, I’ve had a kid put a gun to my head. I’ve felt what it means to be endangered. But it’s not just my personal suggestion that there are alternatives to prison that work better: Research shows that juvenile prison recidivism rates are seventy to eighty percent depending on the state — sometimes higher.

There are other interventions, like Multisystemic Therapy or Functional Family Therapy, that recognize that it’s relationships that rehabilitate. So a kid, if feasible, will stay at home, but will have a caseworker who is available twenty-four hours a day with a beeper and a very small caseload. The caseworker helps to connect, or reconnect, this young person with supports in the community, whether that’s services or natural supports like relatives. And if there are problems in the family, he takes the whole family as his client. Because that’s another issue with prison: If family problems are at the root of a kid’s delinquent actions, then airlifting him out of his family, traumatizing him, and then dropping him back into the same environment doesn’t make sense.

Has any state tried this kind of program on a large scale?

Many states have tried it, but not on a large scale. Ironically, Florida, which has one of the worst reputations in terms of some specific facilities — like Dozier, which is where they’re now digging up bodies — also has something called the Redirection Program, where they redirect a pretty large number of kids into these evidence-based models. But it still doesn’t approach the number who are locked up.

I guess the outcomes couldn’t be much worse than the current system.

And not just for the kid. As I said, I’ve experienced, if not violent crime, certainly the threat of it, and I don’t want to ignore public safety at all. But the truth is that an intervention that doesn’t work for the kid doesn’t help public safety. The fact that being incarcerated as a juvenile makes you much more likely to be incarcerated as an adult counters the argument that there’s a public safety benefit, except maybe for those years that the kid is gone.

In the book, you describe some horrific facilities. But you also visit a facility in Minnesota with a reputation for being comparatively humane, and you still come away ambivalent.

I really liked the warden there. I really liked the fact that when I said I wanted to see the place, he grabbed two kids who were walking by and asked them to show me around, and they were permitted to do so with no supervision. That never happened anywhere else I went. So I did feel that the kids could talk freely. There were motivational posters everywhere, and a lot of the things that the kids said closely mirrored those posters. There were more volunteers than there were kids. There were “cottage grandmothers” who baked cookies and milk. The place looks like a prep school.

But at the same time, each of these kids had spent time in the solitary confinement unit. That’s something that the UN considers torture when used on children for any amount of time. So here was this nice place, where, by international standards, they were routinely torturing kids. Because there has never been a time in history when we’ve successfully eliminated the abuses that take place in these facilities, no matter how many investigations and reports and waves of reform there have been, I don’t believe they can be eliminated.

But let’s say hypothetically that we could somehow, despite all historical evidence, create a juvenile prison where nobody was sexually assaulting kids, nobody was beating them up, nobody was placing them in solitary confinement. They still wouldn’t serve their purpose. If you think of the major developmental tasks of adolescence, they’re things like: Forming trusting relationships, which is taboo inside any locked facility. Learning to make decisions for yourself, which usually involves making some mistakes. There’s no margin of error inside a locked facility and you aren’t allowed to decide something as simple as what toothpaste to use. They live this very regimented life where they’re not allowed to make any decisions or ask any questions or form any relationships.

It sounds like an extreme version of a lot of high schools now, where the kids are very regimented and there are police on site. Kids are treated as though they’re dangerous.

That’s right, and what the kids who experience that learn from it is really morally corrosive. And they learn it from our fear, too — the purse-clutchers and the street-crossers. They learn that, as one kid put it to me, “Your skin is your sin.” Your criminality resides in who you are, before you even do anything, and what you do is secondary. They’re being told that who you are — being poor, being black, being male, whatever combination of those things it is — makes you, if not a criminal, a suspect.

One reason to be especially concerned about juvenile justice is that teenagers are different from adults and their brains are biologically different from adult brains. Still, some of your critiques of juvenile prisons could equally apply to adult prisons.

That’s absolutely true. My first book, All Alone in the World, is about children of incarcerated parents, so it looks at the impact of mass incarceration on family bonds and on communities. I think that we have a special moral responsibility to kids, but I absolutely agree that prison is very often a devastating intervention when it comes to adults. And it’s devastating to their kids. There’s this double-whammy aimed at poor kids of color who have their parents taken from them at really high rates — often for drug-related issues that would get treated as an illness if they had money — and then are themselves the target of the same system.

I should say there’s been a lot of progress on the juvenile front. There’s been a forty percent drop in the number of kids in juvenile facilities over about a decade. I’m also starting to sense a corresponding shift in public attitudes. When I go out and talk about this, I don’t get the same kind of pushback I did with my last book [in 2005]. So I think that if we seize this moment, we might get somewhere. People are starting to ask, “Are there lessons to be learned from the movement for change on the juvenile front that can be applied to the adult system? “

What can people do if they want to get involved with this issue?

Where people stand on juvenile incarceration, and on incarceration generally, has to be central to how we vote. If people want to get involved in political activism or organizing, the Annie E. Casey Foundation has a list of organizations in various states. There are a lot of people working on this, including groups like Justice for Families, which is led entirely by the parents of kids who are locked up. That’s a very powerful kind of advocacy. Every great civil rights movement has been led by those affected, and I do see this as a civil rights movement.

But there are two more things we can do. First, if you’re in a position to hire someone, think about hiring a kid coming out of a juvenile prison. Or if you have a friend who owns a business, advocate for that. Second, the most basic everyday thing we need to start with is looking at ourselves and our own attitudes, and — for example — not clutching our purses when we see a group of black male teenagers coming up the street. Not clutching our purses, not crossing the street. Just checking our own assumptions. It’s very widespread, the fear of these kids. And it sends them the message that they’re considered criminals and that they’re expendable, that society doesn’t really need them.

Sara Mayeux researches and writes about American criminal law. She’s a Sharswood Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania Law School and a PhD candidate in the History Department at Stanford University.

Photo by Connie Ma