Large Youth Prisons Inherently Prone to Abuse, Casey Says

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Richard Ross/Juvenile in Justice

After a failure of earlier reforms that once seemed hopeful, the Annie E. Casey Foundation is renewing its push to close what it calls “youth prisons.”

A recent TEDx talk by Casey Foundation President Patrick McCarthy branded those correctional facilities “factories of failure” that wreck the lives of the kids they’re supposed to help. And even where problems have been identified and cleaned up in the past, new ones have emerged, a recent report by the foundation says.

“The main point is that these places have proven themselves quite susceptible and prone to maltreatment of various types,” said Richard Mendel, a veteran juvenile justice scholar who wrote the Casey report. “Many states where abuses and maltreatment have been identified have been unable to clean and clear up those problems, or have cleared them up temporarily only to have them return. So the record is becoming impossible to ignore.”

The latest report is a follow-up to “No Place For Kids,” the foundation’s 2011 assessment of conditions in juvenile correctional centers nationwide. Four years on, the Casey Foundation found 29 states were unable to prevent what it called “systemic abuse” to children in post-commitment facilities, with “substantial evidence of maltreatment” in three more.

It also described “an epidemic” of sexual abuse, citing a 2013 Bureau of Justice Statistics survey on the topic that found that more than 10 percent of young people had been victimized sexually by staff or other youth.

The earlier model of juvenile corrections is rooted in the reform schools of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Since the 1970s, when Massachusetts shut down its state reformatories — and  increasingly in the past decade — states have either been moving away from prisonlike facilities or trying to substantially reform the remaining ones, according to the report.

The old model has few if any defenders left, said Paul DeMuro, who was Massachusetts’ assistant youth services commissioner when the old reformatories were shut down. The debate today is more between people who think the old facilities can be cleaned up, and those who believe they should be closed altogether, he said.

DeMuro has been a court-appointed monitor overseeing juvenile facilities in several states — including some of those cited in the most recent Casey report — and he’s skeptical about the prospects of long-term changes.

“It is extremely difficult to reform these places, and when you do get some progress, it’s extremely hard to sustain that progress,” he said. “I think you can point to a variety of consent decrees that have brought some reform to a system which then have slid back.”

[Related: Casey: Time to Close ‘Youth Prisons’]

The new report found evidence of systemic and recurring maltreatment” of teenagers who had been committed to custody in seven states that hadn’t been cited in the 2011 report and recurring problems in other states where reforms had been instituted in the past, like California and Ohio.

In Ohio, the state has shuttered most of its old-school juvenile correctional facilities. Its committed youth population has dropped from about 2,000 to 450, due to a long-running court case, said Kim Tandy, a lawyer for the plaintiffs in a lawsuit that led to extensive reforms there. The old facilities were violent, lacked medical and dental facilities and provided insufficient education for the teens housed there, she said.

The state has put the resources that used to go into the large, prison-style lockups into smaller, more locally oriented facilities and programs supported by years of research into juvenile justice. The use of isolation persisted, but it has undergone “really quite significant” changes since the U.S. Justice Department joined the case in 2014, said Tandy, who serves as executive director of the Children’s Law Center in Covington, Ky.

The use of solitary confinement as punishment has been eliminated. Teens are isolated only for “the highest levels of misconduct,” such as assaults, “and 80 percent of the time, the kids are out within four hours.”

“They’re really having a lot of success with safely releasing kids out of the room after they’ve calmed down and been able to sort of talk through it,” she said. Before, kids might have spent “weeks on top of weeks” in solitary, “because they’d be frustrated and they’d do something else.”

While Ohio’s juvenile programs have undergone rapid changes, Tandy was sympathetic to the concerns raised in the Casey report.

“It’s taken 12 years of really costly litigation to get to a point where we’re seeing improvements in safety and programming,” she said. “There is always a danger, with a different administration or a different change in focus, that things could go back.”

And Barry Krisberg, a state-appointed safety and welfare expert monitoring California’s juvenile justice overhaul, said California has gone “from the worst system in the country to probably the best” during the past decades — and the biggest changes have only taken root since 2010.

“Clearly, California was having tremendous problems, and what happened now is that things have gotten far better than they were,” he said. The state now houses only violent offenders, and the most problematic lockup — the Ventura Youth Correctional Facility near Los Angeles — has undergone substantial improvement, he said.

But he agreed with Casey’s call for replacing large lockups: “Once you start looking at a facility with 200 or 300 youth, it’s unworkable,” he said.

Mendel said that while court supervision has helped improve programs in many states, it can’t solve problems with a system that Casey argues is inherently prone to abuse. He said states should start sending fewer kids to custody, and start thinking about how secure facilities should be run “for those few kids who need it.”

“I think it’s clear that smaller, more therapeutic, closer to home, more involved with families, using staff supervision, eyes-on supervision and engagement with youth as the main provider of security, rather than the threat of isolation and punishment or restraint — that works much better than a more correctional approach,” he said.

More stories related to this one:

Juvenile Detention Centers: On the Other Side of ‘Lock ‘Em Up,’ but Not Quite Trauma-Informed

Too Many Abused, Neglected Children in Group Homes Too Long, Report Says

Casey Seeks Youth Voices in Juvenile Justice Reform

Opinion: 3 Steps to Reform Our Juvenile and Criminal Justice Systems

Windows from Prison Provides Visions of Home


One thought on “Large Youth Prisons Inherently Prone to Abuse, Casey Says

  1. Thanks for all the wealth of information on this very important issue. Its so consuming and heart renching when you read these articles but they are truely necessary.