WASHINGTON — The toughest issue facing advocates working to abolish youth prisons may be what replaces them. It’s both an obstacle to change and a practical question that follows success.
“Pushing for the closure of youth prisons is often the radical idea,” said Hernán Carvente Martinez, national youth partnership strategist at Youth First Initiative. “The question you get is ‘You want to shut it down and replace it with what?’
“Do we build something smaller?” he asked. “That is the part most people feel uncomfortable with, not knowing what the next thing is.”
For participants in The Coalition for Juvenile Justice’s annual youth summit, held last week in Washington, the idea that incarcerating children in jail settings is inappropriate, ineffective and injurious is a given, but they know that isn’t the case outside the room.
Youth First, which trains young people who have personal or secondhand experience with the juvenile justice system to act as advocates for those still incarcerated, led a discussion on youth prisons at the summit. The annual meeting brings together young people from around the country to learn about juvenile justice issues and advocacy.
“The system depends on incarcerating black and brown bodies,” said DeVante Lewis of New York City, earning murmurs of approval. “A lot of money is being made.”
Some out-of-home programs valuable
Participants agreed prisons have to be replaced with something else. Several said some troubled youth need to be separated from difficult home environments, at least temporarily.
“I kept going in and out of juvie because it was better than where I was staying at home,” said David Hall of Oklahoma. “They refused to put me in foster care. We need to demand accountability from people who are running these programs and making $100k.”
Glenda Wright of Kentucky said her brother spent time in juvenile detention in part because “our home life was chaotic.”
“It’s hard to heal in that environment,” she said. “I don’t agree with secure prisons but there is value to having them away from their home.”
New York City has a promising program called Close to Home that houses youth offenders in community-based group homes and allows them to attend regular schools, Courtney Ramirez said. “Unfortunately, I think where we have failed is that kids start in secure detention, and even one night in secure detention can be traumatizing,” she said.
It’s important that programs for youth offenders employ people with personal experience who can speak for them and also speak to them as “credible messengers,” said Iliana Pujols of the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance. Her group has fought to overturn rules barring former youth offenders from entering state facilities for five years.
“I fundamentally believe the answer is in the community,” Carvente said. He also argued that the movement should advocate for shutting down youth prisons simultaneous with pushing more effective interventions.
“I want to reach a tipping point where this becomes the norm and people are talking about a world where there are no youth prisons,” he said. Youth First’s immediate goal is to expand from five states to 15, he said.
Just the start
In each of the five states where Youth First is already active, shutting down large detention facilities has been only one round in a larger battle.
- In April, Connecticut became the first state with no large facilities when the scandal-plagued Connecticut Juvenile Training School shut down. The state plans to build residential facilities with 10 to 12 beds, but it is not yet funded.
- Wisconsin enacted legislation in March requiring that its two large juvenile detention centers be closed and replaced with smaller facilities, giving counties responsibility for all but the most serious offenders. However, the legislation calls for turning those buildings into an adult prison, and is not clear about what will replace them for youth.
- New Jersey issued bonds in January to pay for replacing its two large youth prisons; it plans to build smaller correctional centers.
- Kansas closed one of its two juvenile correctional facilities in March. Tyler Williams, a youth advocate at Progeny, told the summit the organization is advocating for the remaining facility’s small program for girls, which currently only has eight inmates, to be to shut down. They also plan to track whether the money saved by the closure goes to intervention programs “instead of paving roads.”
- Virginia closed one of its two large youth detention centers, which were built to hold a total of 284 people, in June 2017. A new 60-bed facility was planned for Chesapeake until the city council pulled out last October, in part because of adverse publicity generated by advocacy efforts. But the two-year state budget enacted in June includes funding to build the new facility in Isle of Wight, 50 miles west of Chesapeake.