Why don’t we think of youth prisons the way we think of leeches?
The youth prison model emerged at a time when bloodletting was still a common medical treatment. In the 1800s, a few states established “training schools” — large, remote, prisonlike institutions meant to treat wayward youth.
The thinking was that removing delinquent youth from their families and communities and placing them in an isolated, highly regimented environment would correct their behavior. In subsequent decades, while the use of leeches and other archaic practices became obsolete, youth prisons proliferated and grew to be the signature feature of the juvenile justice system in every state.
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By the 1990s, public fear of “juvenile superpredators” fueled the explosion of America’s youth prison complex. Despite the fact that white youth and youth of color commit crimes at roughly equal rates, the punitive laws and practices driving youth incarceration has had a decidedly racial dimension.
In the past decade, even as youth incarceration declined overall, the disproportionate confinement of youth of color has increased. African-American youth are 4.6 times more likely to be incarcerated as white youth and Native American youth are 3.2 times more likely to be incarcerated as white youth.
Today, nearly every state operates youth prisons that closely resemble adult prisons — with razor wire fences, control units and security hardware. Uniformed guards bring in young people restrained in handcuffs and leg irons, pat-frisk or strip-search them, issue them institutional underwear and jumpsuits, and then lock them into cell blocks.
Many facilities require youth to walk in single-file lines with their hands behind their back; they cannot speak to each other when they walk or even when they eat. Youth who disobey rules often lose such “privileges” as recreation, showers or phone calls home. Staff are trained to manage youth who act out by using solitary confinement, physical restraints or, in some cases, chemical restraints like pepper spray.
Meant to treat the “ills” of youth crime, there is overwhelming evidence that the so-called cure is worse than the disease. In fact, research shows that sending young people to youth prisons only makes crime worse. In many states, more than three-quarters of young people released from youth prisons re-enter the juvenile justice system or graduate to the adult prison system.
The main reason that youth prisons produce such harmful outcomes for young people and for society is that this model goes against everything we know about what young people need to grow and develop into healthy adults. The closed nature of youth prisons make young people vulnerable to sexual and physical abuse and other forms of violence.
Rather than helping young people maintain or build positive relationships with their families or other supportive adults in their communities, these institutions cut off young people from their families and communities. In addition, youth prisons literally shut out young people from the opportunities — school, jobs, connections — they need to become successful.
The good news is that we face an unprecedented opportunity to dismantle the youth prison model.
Youth incarceration has dropped dramatically in the last 15 years, and most youth prisons are now operating below capacity. In the past two decades, formerly incarcerated youth, families of incarcerated youth, lawyers and community members have worked together to organize successful campaigns to shut down notorious youth prisons in several states including California, the District of Columbia, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas. These campaigns called not only for prison closures but also for systemic changes to redirect resources away from costly youth prisons to invest in the communities most impacted by youth crime and incarceration.
Many states have since enacted policies to limit the number of youth sentenced to youth prisons and have started to embrace nonresidential community-based programs as effective alternatives to incarceration. Some states have seen positive outcomes from community programs for young people who have committed more serious crimes and youth who present complex needs. These community-based alternatives to youth prisons hold young people accountable while ensuring they develop the tools, skills and positive relationships they need to grow into successful adults.
This week, we launched Youth First Initiative, a national campaign to end incarceration in youth prisons and invest in effective community-based alternatives. Over the next five years, we plan to work with partners in 15 state-based advocacy campaigns to promote a new model of youth justice in these states.
Ultimately, Youth First Initiative seeks to achieve a tipping point at which we reach a new national consensus against youth incarceration and in favor of investments in community programs based on principles of positive youth development.
My hope is that, someday in the near future, the public will consider youth prisons to be relics of the past — as outmoded and obsolete as leeches.
Mishi Faruqee is national field director of Youth First Initiative. Previously she was juvenile justice policy strategist with the American Civil Liberties Union.
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