This week marks the 2014 National Week of Action Against Incarcerating Youth. Across the country, actions will be held to protest everything from the criminalization of queer and disabled youth to the isolation of youth in solitary confinement. Ultimately, what activists are protesting is systematic child abuse by the state.
A recent literature review of youth corrections shows that detention has a profoundly negative impact on young people’s mental and physical well-being, their education, and their employment. One psychologist found that for one-third of incarcerated youth diagnosed with depression, the onset of the depression occurred after they began their incarceration, and another suggests that poor mental health, and the conditions of conﬁnement together conspire to make it more likely that incarcerated teens will engage in suicide and self-harm. Economists have shown that the process of incarcerating youth will reduce their future earnings and their ability to remain in the workforce, and could change formerly detained youth into less stable employees. Educational researchers have found that upwards of 40 percent of incarcerated youth have a learning disability, and they will face signiﬁcant challenges returning to school after they leave detention. Most importantly, for a variety of reasons to be explored, there is credible and signiﬁcant research that suggests that the experience of detention may make it more likely that youth will continue to engage in delinquent behavior, and that the detention experience may increase the odds that youth will recidivate, further compromising public safety.
So the state is engaging in violence that scars young people physically and mentally, and hurts their economic prospects; and this practice may even increase rather than decrease the chance of future crime. Moreover, according to the same report, most of these youth are not even a threat to others, as “about 70 percent are detained for nonviolent offenses.”
Once incarcerated, youth are subjected to severe abuses. For example, many youth are isolated in solitary confinement, which is widely recognized as a form of psychological torture. According to the American Civil Liberties Union:
Solitary confinement can cause extreme psychological, physical, and developmental harm. For children, who are still developing and more vulnerable to irreparable harm, the risks are magnified – particularly for kids with disabilities or histories of trauma and abuse. While confined, children are regularly deprived of the services, programming, and other tools that they need for healthy growth, education, and development.
The impacts of solitary on adults are harmful enough. “It’s an awful thing, solitary,” wrote John McCain, “It crushes your spirit and weakens your resistance more effectively than any other form of mistreatment.” Subjecting youth to this kind of torture is monstrous.
Incarcerated youth are also all too often raped and sexually assaulted by guards. According to David Kaiser and Lovisa Stannow, “4.5 percent of juveniles in prison and 4.7 percent of those in jail reported such [sexual] victimization—rates that ought to be considered disastrously high.” Their risk was higher in youth detention centers, “minors held in juvenile detention suffered sexual abuse at twice the rate of their peers in adult facilities.” Most of this abuse is committed by guards employed and paid with tax dollars:
Some 2.5 percent of all boys and girls in juvenile detention reported having been the victims of inmate-on-inmate abuse. This is not dramatically higher than the corresponding combined male and female rates reported by adults or juveniles in either prison or jail. The reason why the overall rate of sexual abuse (9.5 percent) was so much higher in juvenile detention than in other facilities is the frequency of sexual misconduct by staff. About 7.7 percent of those in juvenile detention reported sexual contact with staff during the preceding year. Over 90 percent of these cases involved female staff and teenage boys in custody.
Government employees are committing child sexual abuse against caged victims. These guards are often repeat offenders. “In juvenile facilities, victims of sexual misconduct by staff members were more likely to report eleven or more instances of abuse than a single, isolated occurrence.” All of this data comes from research conducted by the government’s own Bureau of Justice Statistics.
The impacts of the state’s systematic caging and abuse of children are not equally distributed across the population. The Center for Children’s Law and Policy documents many studies showing the racially disparate impacts of youth incarceration and juvenile justice policies. LGBTQ youth also face disproportionate impacts from the juvenile justice system. According to an article in The Nation:
The road to incarceration begins in pretrial detention, before the youth even meets a judge. Laws and professional standards state that it’s appropriate to detain a child before trial only if she might run away or harm someone. Yet for queer youth, these standards are frequently ignored. According to UC Santa Cruz researcher Dr. Angela Irvine, LGBT youth are two times more likely than straight youth to land in a prison cell before adjudication for nonviolent offenses like truancy, running away and prostitution. According to Ilona Picou, executive director of Juvenile Regional Services, Inc., in Louisiana, 50 percent of the gay youth picked up for nonviolent offenses in Louisiana in 2009 were sent to jail to await trial, while less than 10 percent of straight kids were. “Once a child is detained, the judge assumes there’s a reason you can’t go home,” says Dr. Marty Beyer, a juvenile justice specialist. “A kid coming into court wearing handcuffs and shackles versus a kid coming in with his parents—it makes a very different impression.”
Queer and transgender youth are treated differently by the justice system before they are even tried and convicted. Once incarcerated, they face brutal violence. From beatings to victim blaming to bigoted slurs from guards, queer and transgender youth are regularly abused in juvenile corrections facilities.
Some of America’s youth incarceration problem begins in the schools. “Zero-tolerance” policies in public schools criminalize violating school rules, producing what is often called the school to prison pipeline. The racially disparate impacts of this school to prison pipeline are well documented, and they often criminalize minor infractions.
Outside of school, youth are often directly targeted by police thanks to ageist laws like curfews. Laws often restrict freedom of movement and bodily autonomy for youth, and justify this coercion through condescending and paternalistic platitudes. In a particularly appalling recent case of paternalism sending youth to prison, a transgender girl was sent to an adult prison without charges or trial, because the state had power over her as her “guardian.” The desire to protect youth provides ideological cover for the state to treat them even more abusively than it treats adults.
The American state is uniquely punitive in some respects. According to Amnesty International, “The United States is believed to stand alone in sentencing children to life without parole.” Amnesty identifies “at least 2,500 people in the US serving life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for crimes committed when they were under 18 years old.” Before turning 18, these youth were permanently separated from society, permanently sent to violent hellholes.
The essence of imprisonment as we know it is throwing away a human being, treating them as disposable. Prisoners are subjected to violence, abuse, and torture. They are held in austere and inhumane conditions. And they are kept out of the general public’s sight. They are punished rather than being made to make amends or provide restitution to victims. It’s bad enough to treat any human being this way. To treat children this way is unconscionable. Stop caging kids.