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

A man walking in a corridor.
A Rikers Island juvenile detention facility officer walks down a hallway of the jail. © Julie Jacobson/AP Photo

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.

Nell Bernstein is a former Soros Justice Media Fellow and the author of Burning Down the House: The End of Juvenile Prison.

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