Abuse of Kids in Prison: We’ve Been Here Before

There is no greater recidivist, it turns out, than the system meant to rehabilitate our nation’s most troubled children.

The release August 4 of a federal report documenting near-unremitting abuse of juveniles held at New York’s Rikers Island jail was greeted with cries of outrage and pledges of reform.

Don’t hold your breath. We’ve been here before.

In fact, we have been “reforming” the juvenile justice system since its very inception. The “Training Schools” and “Houses of Refuge” that opened their doors in the early 19th century defined their mandate in the language of benevolence. But behind locked doors, those institutions subjected their young wards to “corporal punishments (including hanging children from their thumbs, the use of the ‘ducking stool’ for girls, and severe beatings), solitary confinement, handcuffs, the ‘ball and chain,’” and more, as Randall G. Shelden writes in Juvenile Justice in America: Problems and Prospects.

In the decades that followed, countless investigations have “exposed” similar abuses inside juvenile facilities, each inspiring the same promises of reform. But as this most recent round of revelation, recrimination, promises, and pledges indicates, reform does not stick when it comes to this particular institution. There is no greater recidivist, it turns out, than the system meant to rehabilitate our nation’s most troubled children.

According to this latest report, nearly 44 percent of the adolescent boys at Rikers have been subjected to use of force, leading to an injury rate the authors describe as “alarming,” even “staggering.” Yet in 2010, not five years earlier, federal investigators found widespread abuse and maltreatment throughout America’s juvenile correctional facilities. More than a third of youth reported that staff used force unnecessarily, and 30 percent said that staff placed them into solitary confinement as discipline.

A 2011 overview of successful civil rights suits commissioned by the Annie E. Casey Foundation determined that abuse is pervasive throughout the nation’s juvenile facilities, with documentation of “systemic violence, abuse, and/or excessive use of isolation or restraints” in 39 states, as well as Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico, going back to 1970.

In researching my book, Burning Down the House, I talked to dozens of young people who were or had been locked up, interviewed corrections officials and other adult experts and read through thousands of pages of reports very similar to the one about abuses at Rikers. Nearly every story of brutality and adult impunity that federal investigators “discovered” at Rikers—boys dragged out of range of video cameras for beatings by multiple staff members; attacked with broomsticks, batons, boots and closed fists; met with retaliation rather than respite if they dared complain—mirrored stories I heard from one young prisoner after another all across the nation.

The seemingly gratuitous cruelty of captor toward captive is so widespread and so longstanding that it raises a troubling question: is it even possible to eradicate the abuses that occur with such regularity when large numbers of vulnerable and devalued young people are held captive, far from the public eye? Or is there something inherent to this American institution that makes such abuses inevitable?

The answer, I fear, lies in the words of a 12-year-old boy, locked up for joining two older boys in stealing a car stereo.

The first time his mother was permitted to visit, she told me, she barely recognized the rail-thin boy who greeted her. His eyebrows had been shaved off, highlighting a round indentation on his temple. He had a huge black eye, a busted lip, and a bruise on his rib cage in the shape of a boot.

“Mom, this is what happens,” he told her flatly, dismissing any notion of remedy or recourse. “A guard did this. They want you to know who’s boss.”

“Juvenile justice reform” has been on the table almost as long as has juvenile justice itself. It’s time to get over trying to reform a system that does precious little to help reform kids—and plenty to harm them; statistics show juvenile detention is the greatest predictor there is of adult incarceration.

There are some places where meaningful steps are being taken to create alternatives. In Missouri, for example, officials have replaced full-scale juvenile prisons with smaller, less institutional facilities where staff are trained to interact in a more positive fashion—and try actually to connect with kids. Elsewhere, some localities are experimenting with “evidence-based” programs—keeping the kid in the community, while assigning him or her a caseworker who is on call 24 hours a day for a time. The goal is to care for the child in the context of home and family, and the outcomes are far better than the dismal results of juvenile incarceration.

Ultimately, the only way to truly reform juvenile prison is to get rid of it, turning whenever possible to these far more promising alternatives, and keeping the great majority of the kids we now imprison—most of whom enter the system for low-level, nonviolent offenses—out of locked institutions entirely. On one level, signs are promising; juvenile incarceration has dropped 40 percent over the course of the last decade. But we still countenance a juvenile incarceration that far outstrips that of any other nation.

Until America breaks free of the edifice complex that has made isolating youth in locked institutions far from family and community our default reflex, we will neither do our children justice, nor offer our citizens safety.

11 Comments

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Prisons for juvenile offenders create more criminals than they cure.

Out of locked institutions entirely.

Wordsworth said 'The child is father to the man'. Pity the world for perpetuating this violence so endlessly then!

I started a transitional living program for homeless and adjudicated male youth (youth coming out of detention centers) years ago in New York. Our youth did well. People tend to do well when they have the necessary supports. We need practical realism that promotes healing and social functioning of youth. Adult correctional officers are not programmed to work with juveniles; and an adult jail infrastructure is not usually designed to meet the developmental needs of youth.

In Cameroon the juvenile is recognised from youthlike appearance and ID age not as an institution. Juvenile or adult are bundled together. I think it was better these juveniles were reschooled in open institutions as their talents show yet under a public guardian supervision unit.

If this is what happens with developed countries where the systems are open for the public to scrutinize, then in Zimbabwe it should be "hell for our young men and women".

Insightful!
Now I want to read the book 'Burning Down the House: The End of Juvenile Prison', but I don't know how can I get that.

DO SOMETHING FOR OTHERS, OTHERWISE NO USE TO LIVE OR NO MEANING IN LIFE !!!!!

Reports about self mutilating prisoners should be viewed in a new light, it seems to me.

My daughter ended up iin juvenile hall because she had hit me, I made the call, I never thought it would turn out to be the nightmare it did. I thought they would keep her overnight, no they kept my daughter for 2 yre, they put her in a group home that recieved 10,000 per month to keep her from me, they said she was a danger to me, she was not, I had taken a class called parent project by the police department and they tell you if your chid hits you to vall the police. Its all about money, my daughter lost so much weight and she suffered in there, I blame myself but I never thought that could happen. When I got her home she was so happy to be home but all her friends had moved on and she met a gtoup of russion kids, they seemed to be really nice kids, well dresses good mannners, they gave my daughter oxyconton, she got it free from some boy that liked her then she got sick when she didnt have it. She came to me and told me and we went to a methadone clinic and they only did a 21 day detox, she needed a longer detox, I took her to 2 more clinics, the lasr one was going to send her to a pain management, they didnt call monday and I kept calling, they kept telling me they couldn't find a clinic that took our insuranse, my daughter suffered, she was murdered 9/28/10 I love her so much and dont know how to live without her. I raised my kids.alone and this town targets people like me.i had to bury my only daughter at the tender age of 21, when she died they already had my son in juvenile hall for him and his friend stealing a bowling ball and other stuff out of a car. They only let him come home for 3 days for his sisters funeral. My son told me he couldn't cry there but when I picked him up he was screaming no it can't be true, l lost our home of 15 years, my son turned to heroine and is in jail right now, hhe will be out in Dec, I don't know how to live without her. My life is over.....I am dead dead dead

A daughter is precious, this life is fleeting, only a blink of an eye. Pray gently to you lovely daughter, tell her how it was when she was a baby and all the things that were supposed to happen that didn't. We do not know how things work out, we go for help and they steal our children. There are those who pretend to care and they give our kids drugs so that they are out of their minds, if not their friends then the gov. and the pharm. companies, they hook people on drugs then put them on methadone programs. This world is HELL, the next time you see your sweet daughter you will be running into her arms, you will have all of your tears wiped away. God has a plan for all of us, keep your heart open to his word, his plan for you. I know your daughter is saying come on momma see the good in the world, see me. trust that as days and hours and minutes drag on for you now they will fly when your family is together again for eternity. God is good he has not forsaken you. His will is working in your life, like so many others we suffer in this world. To make us stronger to make us soldiers in Christs name we march. My daughter is also a heroin addict I pray every day. We are Gods children we will be home again with him and it will be a victorious celebration. Hold on and look around someone needs a smile today, give it to them in Gods glory.

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