Last week president Obama put an end to the use of solitary confinement on youth locked up in the federal prison system. In an op-ed announcing a series of executive actions the president cited the particular psychological harms that young inmates face when being placed in solitary confinement. He rightly points out that a life in blossom under such conditions is robbed of its future potential. Obama’s op-ed and his executive actions, which also put restrictions on adult solitary confinement, are no doubt laudable and a terrific step in the right direction.
However, his appeals to the severity of conditions for youth within solitary, at the federal level, apply also to juvenile detention generally. Right now there are well over 70,000 juveniles incarcerated in the United States. Fueled by an endless call for law-and-order and tough-on-crime policies, more children are being tried as adults and are being met with more severe sentences as a result. Juveniles are being arrested more and find themselves behind bars longer, and the consequences of their time spent in correctional facilities are disastrous.
First, children are not at all exempt from the sexual predation that pervades America’s correctional facilities. The particularly disastrous effects of exposure to such predation at a young age is well documented and rightly universally condemned. However our cultural stereotype of pedophilic assault seems to never take place in incarceration, and the perpetrator is never cast as a detention center employee. Yet that is who incarcerated youth are most likely to be sexually victimized by. Shockingly, children are even less safe in juvenile detention centers than in normal jails and prisons, where the rate of sexual assault is nearly twice what adult inmates face. 7.7 percent of inmates in juvenile facilities report sexual contact with staff members. With such uniquely horrendous conditions it is no wonder that 1/3rd of incarcerated youth diagnosed with depression track the onset of those conditions to when they were first incarcerated. The ordeal of being imprisoned does not teach youth to be peaceful, but fosters the mental characteristics of a lifelong offender.
Let us remember that juveniles are encumbered by criminal offenses unique to them. Children can find themselves in the custody of the criminal justice system for consuming alcohol, purchasing cigarettes, consensual sexual interactions with fellow teenagers, refusing to go to school, and even persistent disobedience to their parents or legal guardians. When youths do show up to school they are often met with zero tolerance policies which start them on the path of the well-researched school-to-prison pipeline. Children are brought up in institutions often meant to mimic the atmosphere of prisons and jails, with the threat ever looming that misbehavior may land them in the real deal.
Youth are stigmatized in our culture, with perceptions of criminality among minors increasing as rates of actual criminality decrease. We need to stop denying young people their agency while simultaneously exposing them to more severe treatment than many adults face. President Obama’s policies do not go nearly far enough. Nothing less than a halt to the incarceration of children, the elimination of all laws that uniquely target and harm them, and the active opposition to a media and culture that criminalizes them will suffice. If we wish to see a world which has done away with mass incarceration and focuses on peaceful alternatives we cannot afford to tolerate a system that makes so many people into convicts before they even possess the right to vote. End our prison-centric culture where it starts. Free all children now.