After decades of reporting on the juvenile justice system and years of interviewing kids for her new book, Burning Down the House: The End of Juvenile Prison, activist and journalist Nell Bernstein came to a singular conclusion: juvenile prisons must be closed.
Her book, released [last month] weaves stark tales of abuses in juvenile prisons with grim statistics to produce a a compelling case to end these practices. In a chat with Cara Tabachnick, managing editor of The Crime Report, Bernstein discussed how working in a group home shaped her outlook, why not all teen misbehavior should be criminalized, and how “we need a whole new way of thinking” about troubled youth.
The Crime Report: How did you start reporting on this story? How were you able to gain the trust of the juveniles?
Nell Bernstein: After college I got a job at a group home for girls. I was never able to make the connection between the innocuous offenses they had committed and the extreme power I had over them. It was a terrible, but formidable experience. After I became an editor at a youth newspaper,…my writers and editors kept getting arrested for all sorts of things that would never happen in my neighborhood (a middle class-white one) or to me. I would go with them to court and try to help persuade the judges and lawyers not to send my staff to juvenile institutions. But it didn’t really help. And I became interested in what was happening inside the system.
When I started reporting this book, my preexisting relationships helped tremendously. Most people don’t talk to [kids] about their experience of incarceration, and how it’s an erasure of your individuality: you are taken from your family, your personal items; and put into a cell without much identity. Talking about the experience helped the [young people] gain some of those years back.
TCR: Most of the kids profiled in the book have been institutionalized from a young age.
NB: That is one the central tragedies of the book. The institutionalization leads directly to incarceration. One of the kids I interviewed said it’s like a big snowball heading downhill, with no way to stop it as it gathers everything in its way. And it starts from the moment most of these kids enter any institution like foster care or the child welfare system. There is an over-criminalization of kids in foster care. When I was working in the group home, we were trained at the first sign of anger or a fight that we should call the police. Kids would get arrested from fighting in their home. That doesn’t normally happen in a home with parents. Another thing that would happen is that kids would go AWOL from the group home and a warrant for their arrest would be issued. This is standard practice for kids in these systems.
There is no room for mistakes, or to try different thing that are hallmarks of the teen year. Most of the youth haven’t figured out who they are. [They haven’t] gone through any developmental process before being placed in a juvenile institution.
TCR: Some people don’t believe that the abuses you describe are happening inside the juvenile facilities.
NB: Whenever a young person told me a story about abuse inside a facility, I did my best to confirm it. The book is very well documented. But the real surprise is that some of the stories I recounted weren’t even the worst of it. When I looked into the story of guards handcuffing the young men and making them kneel I found examples in court documents where the boys were made to kneel around the clock.
To learn about the depth and breadth of these abuses was a real struggle for me as well. I met guards and administrators who were forward-thinking and seemed kind and respectful. So I really couldn’t understand how these abuses were happening in juvenile prisons where so many people working there seemed caring and committed. We don’t want to believe that is happening. But the truth is, when we place anyone in an institution where people have extreme power over others, abuse is bound to occur.
TCR: So how should we handle youth who commit crimes?
NB: We need a whole new way of thinking. What is the relationship between crime and time? As a society we believe that someone who breaks any law needs to be put somewhere. And while this may be true for our most violent offenders, for the past majority of youth this is the exact wrong thing to do. Incarceration increases the odds of youth going to an adult prison. The evidence is clear. We put a kid in a criminogenic situation—such as a juvenile prison—and the odds are that we will turn this youth towards a life of crime.
Yet, we can’t think of any other ways to go about it. Our culture of punishment trumps common sense and thoughtful approaches to rehabilitation.
TCR: Has a higher minimum age helped with juvenile transfers to adult facilities?
NB: We have had a big drop over the years of kids who were being sent adult prisons. And that is encouraging. The evidence tells us that sending kids to an adult prison is a really bad idea. It puts their health and safety at tremendous risk and we should not do it. Public opinion has also helped move this along. We are not in the age of the super predator anymore, and we are chipping away at some of the more egregious laws on the books. As of now, only North Carolina and New York are still sending kids 16 and older to adult prisons. That is a huge stride forward.
Still our understanding surpasses our action. We talk about broader change but in reality (our approach is) s much narrower.
TCR: Distance is a huge barrier in all correctional systems –and it’s incredibly difficult in the juvenile system. But do you think close-to-home programs work?
NB: It depends on what type of program is available. It doesn’t work if you just put kids in institutions closer to their homes. But what can work better is placing children in smaller community safe settings or keeping them monitored in their actual home. In New York State they are working on not sending kids to facilities. As a result they are closing juvenile prisons. I was really impressed with what I saw happening in New York and the facilities they were closing.
TCR: So do you believe that the system can be reformed?
NB: I initially thought the book would have a list of suggestions and solutions for the juvenile justice system. But the more I thought of reform and its circular nature, the more I realized that it wouldn’t work. We find out truly horrible stories. For example, the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Florida had over 100 years of confirmed abuses—they were digging up bones of boys from the backyard—before they shut the school down. The abuse continued and continued, and it took years of rallying to shut it down. And I won’t be surprised if a “new” Dozier comes along and takes its place.
I think we need to eliminate prison systems from our repertoire of sanctions entirely. There is no evidence that they work, so we shouldn’t continue to tinker with this model.
TCR: But there are some models where you saw some improvement?
NB: In those cases where people are violent enough that they need to be contained, the best model I saw was in Missouri. They had some best practices and worked hard to ensure the safety and humane treatment of their inmates. But I don’t have any fixes for the large prison- like facilities. It is just a toxic culture that I don’t believe can ever be fixed.
EDITORS NOTE: for another take on youth prisons, See the Viewpoint commentary by Liz Ryan in TCR June 25, 2014.
Cara Tabachnick is Managing Editor of The Crime Report. She welcomes comments from readers.