Author Nell Bernstein Talks About ‘Burning Down the House’ and Abolishing Juvenile Prisons

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Nell Bersntein, author of "Burning Down the House"

Nell Bernstein, author of "Burning Down the House"

Imagine your child — or any child you love — kneeling in a pool of his own urine while handcuffed to other children for two weeks straight, forced to subsist on one daily meal and a few hours of sleep.

Or picture the child confined to a tiny windowless room with a bare cement bunk and a metal toilet — for months.

Or being beaten or sexually assaulted — maybe both — by guards supposedly charged with the child’s rehabilitation.

Award-winning author Nell Bernstein documents such harrowing horrors in her new book, “Burning Down the House: The End of Juvenile Prison,” a scathing indictment of state-run juvenile detention facilities in America.

The 365-page book — based on interviews with hundreds of youths and their families and dozens of experts, as well as a review of thousands of pages of documents — should be required reading for anybody working in juvenile justice. In fact, this extraordinary and important exposé should be required reading for anybody who cares about children, period.

Replete with real-life stories of children who have endured what Bernstein at times dubs modern-day “dungeons,” the book serves as a clarion call to abolish juvenile prisons. Bernstein deems them beyond mere reforming and says they should be replaced with community-based alternatives that provide real rehabilitation.

“For as long as we have locked children away in the name of rehabilitating them, the evidence has mounted that this approach is a failure on all fronts,” Bernstein writes.

Indeed, recidivism rates have soared to more than 80 percent in some states. The juvenile prisons — Bernstein quickly dispenses with euphemisms — have driven delinquent children deeper into criminal behavior and increased the likelihood they will end up incarcerated again.

Physical and sexual abuse — most often inflicted by juvenile prison staff — and psychological torture (in the form of solitary confinement) abound.

Most of the children imprisoned — more than 66,000 as of last year — are incarcerated for minor offenses and pose little risk to public safety.

"Burning Down the House" coverThe book traces the origins of the juvenile prison system to the House of Refuge, which opened in New York City in 1825. The ostensible goal was rehabilitating youth, but instead the place evolved into an abusive prison that brutally punished largely children of Irish and German immigrants.

Today, youths in juvenile prisons are disproportionately children of color from poor neighborhoods, and Bernstein says they’re more likely to have been victims of violence than to have committed it. And black teens are locked up at five times the rate of whites.

The cost of incarcerating kids is staggering: Bernstein says the United States spends an average of about $88,000 a year to incarcerate a youth in a juvenile facility. That’s more than eight times the average of $10,652 we spend annually to educate a child.

But there are glimmers of hope: Some states have shut down juvenile prisons, in part due to budget constraints, pressure from advocates, federal findings of civil rights violations and exposés in the media, Bernstein writes. And the rate of juvenile confinement has dropped 41 percent since 1995, when the “super-predator” myth prevailed. This hasn’t led to an increase in crime; in fact, juvenile crime has declined over the same period.

“These cuts [in the number of juveniles incarcerated] are rightly heralded as cause for celebration,” Bernstein writes. “But any change that is inspired in large part by a dip in tax revenues is intrinsically fragile. Buildings that now stand empty may well fill up once again, should an improved economy replenish state coffers and a fresh onslaught of fearmongering shift the political winds.”

Bernstein, who brings more than two decades of experience reporting on and working with young people throughout the country, says rehabilitation of a youth happens in the context of a positive relationship with a caring, trusted adult.

Instead, youths in juvenile prisons endure isolation — and not just in solitary — in an environment that denies those meaningful relationships as a matter of course.

"Viewed through the eyes of children consigned to exile when they most need connection, incarceration seems flat-out monstrous,” Bernstein writes.

And it’s time to get beyond the commonly held belief that only other people’s kids could be snared by this torturous vortex: Confidential surveys show as many as 90 percent of all U.S. teenagers admit they’ve committed illegal acts that could lead to incarceration. Demographers predict one in three schoolchildren will be arrested by age 23, and police arrest almost 2 million juveniles each year.

Bernstein argues convincingly that we need to stop forcing our children to endure torture. She believes strongly that delinquent children can and should be rehabilitated outside the razor wires of a juvenile prison.

“The time has come to move beyond the long battle to reform our juvenile prisons and declare them beyond redemption,” Bernstein writes. “Raze the buildings, free the children, and begin anew.”

JJIE asked Bernstein to talk about “Burning Down the House” and the broken juvenile prison system it portrays. Edited excerpts of the interview follow.

(Bernstein — a 49-year-old mother of two who lives in Albany, Calif. — also is the author of the acclaimed 2007 book “All Alone in the World: Children of the Incarcerated.”)

JJIE: What inspired you to write the book?

Bernstein: It had a long genesis. When I graduated [from Yale University] and discovered there wasn’t really much you could do with a comp lit degree, I ended up working in a San Francisco group home for girls who were on probation. And I think that was my first real experience with failure. I was 22, and they were 16 and 17, and from day one, they asked me, “Who the hell are you to tell us what to do?” And I remember thinking that that was a very good question. And I didn’t have an answer. The more I thought about it, the more I had to really question what had they had done (and in most cases, they had just gone through one too many foster homes) that would give me the authority to tell them when and whether they could eat — there was a padlock on the refrigerator — and when and whether they could see their parents. So I think that was what really got me thinking about the relationship between juvenile wrongdoing of whatever kind and the amount of their freedom that we allow ourselves to take [away] as a result. And I don’t think that I lasted a year at that job.

After that, I got a job I liked a lot better as the editor of a youth newspaper in San Francisco and spent a decade there, and there were a lot of reasons I liked it, but the central one was that the kids were there of their own volition. They weren’t working with me under court order. This was the ’90s, which was the height of the “super-predator” era, and there were months when it was hard to get the paper out because so many of my staff had been arrested, and that was really what put the depths of this issue on my radar.

JJIE: You relied heavily on the stories of young people who had endured juvenile prisons. How important were their voices in terms of getting the book’s central message across?

Bernstein:  It was absolutely central. There are plenty of brilliant books out there, many of which I relied on, that offer an incontrovertible argument, a research-based argument against juvenile incarceration. But I don’t think this is a policy that we continue with for logical reasons. I think that often we lock kids up for emotional reasons and for that reason, I felt the need to write a book that spoke to those emotions and also that would allow readers to see the kids as human. I know that sounds like it should go without saying. But when you’ve been inside a lot of these places and see how the kids are treated, you really struggle with the question of how can very decent-seeming individuals do this kind of thing to kids and how can we as the public tolerate it? And I think the only way that we can is to dehumanize them, to see them as some other kind of kid. Their stories were central to combating that.

JJIE: Why are black- and brown-skinned youth treated so much more harshly despite so much ostensible progress in civil rights?

Bernstein: I think it just goes back to the notion of “other people’s children.” There are thousands of statistics on the issue of whatever you want to call it, disproportionate minority contact, and a lot of research showing black youths are locked up about five times the rate of white youths for identical offenses under as close to identical circumstances as you can come up with. So I think the first thing is to just get rid of this notion that it might somehow be an act of God or a result of different levels of criminality. In fact, white kids sell drugs, for instance, at a higher rate than black kids but are locked up for drug crimes at a lower rate.

But that doesn’t answer your question: Why? Somebody else asked me: Do I think it’s intentional? And I think it’s so much more complicated than that. The disparities, if you want to call them that, get worse the deeper you go into the system. There are disparities at arrest but when we get into the deep end, the large state-run facilities, which are what my book focuses on, the disparities are much greater. So what that tells me is that on the road to these large prison-like facilities, there are many decision-making points: Am I going to drive through this kid’s neighborhood? Am I going to arrest this kid? Am I going to release him to his family? Am I going to sentence him to probation or am I going to confine him? So it’s not one person making one decision; it’s a whole series of decisions.

The “super-predator” notion has been discredited. That idea that we were presented in the ’90s by academics with studies that they claimed backed this up was that as the population of youth grows and — particularly and quite explicitly, the population of black youth — rose, we were going to see a crime wave like nothing we had ever seen before. And the language that was used — “remorseless,” “more savage than salvageable,” these kind of blank-eyed, completely emotionless “monsters” really who were coming to get us — was very frightening to people. And when it entered the popular culture, for example, through the large-circulation news magazines, it was almost always with the image of a glowering young black man.

But that fear is longstanding. Using juvenile facilities, whatever you want to call them, to control particular ethnic groups is nothing new. It goes back to the very dawn of the institution like the 1800s when the House of Refuge [in New York] was formed. The explicit motives were benevolent, but the truth is there was a lot of fear around Irish and also German immigration, and this literally contained that fear.

JJIE: You write that juvenile prisons have driven delinquent children deeper into criminal behavior and increased the likelihood they will end up incarcerated again. Could you elaborate on this?

Bernstein: It turns out that the greatest predictor that somebody is going to grow up and end up in an adult prison — more than family formation, more than mental health issues, more than gang involvement, even more than the offenses that that person commits — is juvenile incarceration. I think it about doubles the chance that a kid will go on to adult prison, and that’s controlling for youthful delinquency. So you take the kid who is just left alone to grow up and grow out of it [delinquent behavior], which is generally what happens, if permitted, and compare him to the kid who is incarcerated as a juvenile, and the latter kid is twice as likely to end up in adult prisons. So not only do we have an intervention that’s not working, but it’s really exacerbating the problem that it’s trying to solve.

JJIE: Why do the horrific conditions you write about — physical and sexual abuse, isolation, solitary confinement, for example — persist? Are juvenile prisons out of sight, out of mind to most people?

Bernstein: One thing that is really clear when you walk inside a juvenile facility is the degree to which it functions to dehumanize those who are kept there — taking their clothes and replacing them with a uniform, taking their name and supplanting it with a number, controlling every one of their actions, having them march in formation. It all sort of quells individuality, and that in turn allows us to see the kids as prisoners.

I remember once a young woman who I was close to was in juvenile hall, and I happened to see her file and I couldn’t believe what I was reading. [The file described] this out-of-control, kind of vicious and completely hopeless creature who bore no resemblance to the brilliant, ambitious, warm-hearted girl that I knew. And what I realized was that was the face that she was showing [staffers] under those circumstances. So in some senses, they’re creating their own monsters.

The other function of prisons beyond dehumanizing is hiding from ourselves what we’re doing — just simply the fact of putting a gate around it and often limiting press access. It allows us to not do anything about what’s going on in there because it allows us not to know.

JJIE: What about abusive staff members at these juvenile prisons? How do they live with themselves? How do they sleep at night?

Bernstein: When I would talk to the guards and also administrators, they really understood the trauma, for example, that drove young people into delinquency in a way the public doesn’t because they don’t know them. But knowing that, how can they re-traumatize them? And I remember a young man named Will Roy, who worked as my research associate on the book and did a number of interviews and also really helped refine the thinking and just helped me understand some of this stuff. And he had also spent time in a California facility himself, and I asked him that question, and we were sitting in a coffee shop, and I remember him saying, “You’ve got to realize it’s a job for them and basically we’re the product. So if a kid starts acting up, you know, banging on his door, or even just talking back, that’s basically the equivalent of running out of coffee filters.” (Roy is now on a Ph.D. track at the University of California – Berkeley.)

Another person said to me they [staff] are as institutionalized as we [juvenile prisoners] are. They go home at night, but they do 20, 30 years in these facilities, and the power of an institution is very, very strong.

Vinny Schiraldi [the former director of the Washington, D.C., Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services and now a senior adviser in the New York Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice] talked about cognitive dissonance. And when he talked about cognitive dissonance, what he meant was you’re a young guy, you’re a good guy, you think you might be able to help some kids. You get a job at one of these places, and there’s that first time when maybe you witness a kid getting beaten up or a drug sale, whatever it is that you witness, and you have to make a choice between intervening, reporting it and basically making yourself a pariah in this culture and letting it go. And this is Vinny who I’m paraphrasing: Unless you’re a very brave person, you probably let it go and at that point, as he put it, “a little bit of evil creeps in,” and the next time it’s a little easier to let it go, and a few more times and maybe it’s a little easier to participate. When you think what you believe and what you see clash, that creates cognitive dissonance.

JJIE: You say you no longer believe the juvenile prison system can be reformed and that it needs to be replaced by community-based alternatives. Why?

Bernstein:  I started the book with a reformer’s mentality. And when I say that I’m not a reformer anymore, I don’t mean to denigrate the tremendous work that people are doing to reform [the juvenile prison system]. There is a real sea change happening. The number of kids in these institutions has dropped by about 40 percent [since 1995]. That’s a very significant drop, and I don’t want to diminish the importance of that in any way. For those kids who are not locked up, it couldn’t mean more.

There’s two things that stop me from wanting to throw a party quite yet. One is that this is not the first time this has happened. In the 1970s, Jerry Miller [the former commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Youth Services] literally closed every facility in the state, and in a very short period of time moved kids into community placements or, in some cases, just moved them out of the system entirely, with really good results. And in the years that followed, I think 40 other states followed suit and started to cut the population of their juvenile facilities and look to community-based alternatives — all the things that we’re seeing now.

Then the super-predator scare came along. It’s very telling that after this 40 percent drop, the number of kids we have in institutions is about what it was before the super-predator scare. So I don’t think that we can count on seeing a consistent downward trajectory unless a lot us are very vigilant in making sure that happens.

The other concern is that a lot of things have driven this change, but one of them is money. States were broke and couldn’t afford to incarcerate in the numbers that they were. And that was during a time when state budgets overall were going bust, and that may change, and if we don’t have concomitant change in the way we see young people, the way that we understand their humanity and imagine their prospects, then I don’t think that we have a formula for lasting change.

JJIE: What proportion of the youths in juvenile prisons has been adjudicated for serious crimes?

Bernstein: Once that uniform is on the kid, there’s an assumption that he is an ax murderer when the truth is — especially the first time, but across the board — most kids are in for minor offenses that don’t endanger anybody. I think if you look at the state facilities, which are supposed to be for the worst of the worst, 40 percent of the kids are there for really low-level offenses like loitering or public drunkenness, truancy, a probation violation. Only about a quarter are there for what are known as violent crime index offenses, which include murder and rape but also include robbery or aggravated assault. The rest are there for — this is another phrase, it’s not  my own, but it’s used pretty widely right now — that we’re locking up kids we’re mad at, not kids we’re afraid of.

JJIE: How do you the findings in your book square with the ostensible rehabilitation goal of the juvenile justice system?  

Bernstein: Overall, I think a system where the recidivism rate is in many states 70 to 80 percent is not rehabilitating anyone. I mean that is just clear as day. The real question is: Could it? Is rehabilitation even possible in a locked environment? And I ask that because there is a trend toward making juvenile facilities more rehabilitative, or to use the word that is more popular these days, “therapeutic.” So they’re turning some of these facilities into therapeutic milieu.

But the kids will talk about how challenging it is to do the things that are required of them therapeutically like open up in group when the person leading that group might be the person who has the key to their cell. There’s just an intrinsic problem there. Some kids even talked about being told group is a safe place: It’s confidential; you can open up here. But if they either tell their story as they were asked to or if the story they told didn’t mesh with their police report, then they’d get a write-up and that write-up could mean that when they came before their probation hearing, they would end up behind bars longer. So there’s some pretty tricky issues to deal with when trying to perform therapy in a locked setting. And my sense was that it was a losing battle, especially when there are programs that have been extensively tested that are therapeutic and that allow the kid to remain in the community and have shown very positive results, including with young people who have been convicted of pretty serious offenses.

JIJE: You mentioned in the book the importance of a trusted relationship with a caring adult. How essential is that to rehabilitation?

Bernstein: I don’t think you can stress enough the importance of a relationship when it comes to rehabilitation or just growing up. It’s something that is borne out by all the research but also something that we just know as parents or as people or just from basic common sense — that kids turn themselves around and also just grow through a relationship, and I’m speaking about the main developmental tasks of adolescence: forming intimate relationships, learning gradually to take more responsibility for yourself and your life, figuring out who you are and what your place is in the world. These are all things that take place in a relationship. When we isolate kids for those [adolescent] years, we’re really stymieing their development and failing to rehabilitate them.

JJIE: So many of the kids you wrote about said they felt like they had been treated as animals. What does that say about our juvenile prison system?

Bernstein: I think it says everything. I couldn’t believe the number of times I heard that and what I almost always heard was a two-part formulation: “Treated like an animal, I became an animal. Thrown to the savages, I became a savage.” Not only did they feel they were not being rehabilitated, they felt they were being “de-habilitated.” I remember a kid who was 10 years old and he went into the youth authority, which at the time held young men up to 24, and being so scared as this tiny kid among grown men that he immediately got into fights to prove himself so that he, he believed, would be a little bit less in danger. As a result of those fights, he ended up spending months at a time in solitary confinement and as a result of that, he would talk about his main human contact being the nurse who came around with his meds every day, but education was worksheets and crayons slipped through a slot.

JJIE: You write that we as a nation spend an annual average of more than eight times as much to incarcerate a child as we spend to educate him. What message does that send?

Bernstein: I think what it tells kids – and especially kids who go to under-resourced schools in poor neighborhoods, who are also the kids more likely to get locked up — is that we will spent almost anything to contain them but almost nothing to cultivate them, that we fear them but we don’t have any aspirations for them. I think the tragedy comes when they internalize that message. I’d rather see a kid get angry than internalize the message that he is a menace, always will be and shouldn’t aspire to anything more than maybe staying out of trouble and holding down a minimum-wage job.

JJIE: Who do you most hope will read this book, and how do you hope that will change their mindset, maybe policies, hearts and minds?

Bernstein: Of course, I would like policymakers and practitioners and people who can make an immediate difference that way to see it. But I would love for some miracle to happen and for the general public to read it because I think that whatever we do as advocates, until the public begins to see these kids as not only having some value but having the same value as their own kids — that they really are their own kids — that we’re not going to see the kind of tidal shift that I think is necessary.

JJIE: You highlighted the importance of the “my-child test” that Bart Lubow¸ director of the Juvenile Justice Strategy Group at the Annie E. Casey Foundation, came up with — the idea that we should treat children in the juvenile justice system as we would want our children to be treated if they got into trouble with the law. Do you apply this test to your own children?

Bernstein: Only every second of the day. My first book was about children of parents who are incarcerated. When I started to work on that book, I was pregnant with twins, so my first experience going into prisons was of doing so pregnant and as a new mother. So I think every aspect of my own journey into motherhood has been colored by this other journey I’ve been taking into the world of criminal justice. And my kids are 13 now [twins, a girl and a boy], and we talk about this stuff at the dinner table, and I remember one time we were talking about solitary confinement, and after dinner, my son wanted to try it. He wanted to take everything out of the bathroom and lock himself in and see how long he could last. Well, I don’t know how long he could have lasted because I didn’t make I happen. I couldn’t stand it. I couldn’t stand the thought of it.

JJIE: How do you stay hopeful, given you’ve seen and written about so much pain and suffering?

Bernstein: Well, sometimes I don’t, for one thing, but there are things that keep me hopeful. There’s the fact that things are changing. I don’t want to dismiss the significance of a 40 percent drop [in youths incarcerated since 1995]. That’s very significant, especially to those kids who are not now incarcerated and to those parents who have not now lost their kids to incarceration, and along with that drop the change in public attitude. It’s not enough, but it’s very important and very promising, and you see it across the board. So there is a real change happening, and I don’t mean to belittle it.

The other thing that keeps me hopeful — cheesy as this may sound — is the kids themselves. I just love teenagers. And I always have, maybe with the exception of those years that I was one. I love their self-righteousness and their inquisitiveness and the way that they’re still thinking about the deep questions of life, and this is true of all teenagers, whether or not they’ve gone through these kinds of struggles.

4 thoughts on “Author Nell Bernstein Talks About ‘Burning Down the House’ and Abolishing Juvenile Prisons

  1. I believe that she reached her conclusions fairly after a great deal of research. The laws are applied unevenly and unfairly target certain groups. Most kids in juvenile prisons are there for nonviolent offenses. The rates of sexual assault are high, especially from staff.

  2. I listened to an interview with the author on NPR and was disgusted by her propaganda. I never could figure out if she was speaking about State-run institutional facilities, county detention centers, or some other type of facility. She definitely has an agenda, and it’s unfortunate that NPR gave her a voice. Her over-generalizations, hyperbole, and focus on the most heinous incidents is the worst kind of “journalism.” Of course children should be treated with respect, dignity, and compassion. I would hope everyone believes that. However, to highlight instances of gross mistreatment and then paint all facilities, treatment centers, institutions and detention centers in the same light is also an injustice. Shame on her.

  3. This lady is completely full of herself. I listened to her interview on the radio and it was complete garbage. She believes these kids are going away for minor theft offenses or skipping school when that is far from the truth. Kids sent to juvenile prison typically have committed serious violent crimes from murder, rape, robbery or assault with a weapon. She seems to think community based programs are somehow better when in fact that is not the case. In fact the community based programs that she mentioned commit abuse (which is very rare) at the same rate as the state run institutions. In Ohio a program called Parmadale, a community based program near Cleveland, was shut down by the state of Ohio for abusing the girls there. Another community based program in Butler County Ohio was also abusing residents. The only reason states are switching to community based treatment programs is because it is cheaper not because they are better.

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