Break, Don't Remake, the Youth Prison Mold

Once is an incident, twice is a coincidence, three times is a pattern. The old saying doesn’t give a new label to a fourth or fourteenth occurrence. A pattern is a pattern, and it will repeat itself until it is extinguished.

In juvenile justice, the pattern is reprehensible.

Four Illinois juvenile prison guards were indicted recently on a combined 98 felony counts arising out of the earlier abuse of 10 young people in custody. Reports allege that the guards encouraged youth to fight one another over the course of several weeks -- whether as punishment, entertainment, or both.

These “fight club guards” might seem familiar. Strikingly similar incidents of juvenile prison guards baiting or bribing youth into targeted violence, setting up designated off-camera areas for fighting, and even betting money on youth “gladiators” have been exposed and documented in Wisconsin, Mississippi, New Jersey and Connecticut.

Youth imprisoned around the country are through coercion both committing and submitting to illegal, violent acts while they are supposedly in custody for the purpose of rehabilitation.

Official documentation of -- and action against -- these incidents is fairly new, but the stories are not.

Attorneys and law students at the Children and Family Justice Center have periodically heard rumors of similar exploitation over 25 years representing incarcerated young people through our legal clinic.

As with the other kinds of physical, sexual and mental abuse visited upon incarcerated youth, the specific employees and institutions involved must be held accountable. Yet we cannot extinguish the violence endemic to youth prisons with an approach that treats it as a collection of isolated incidents carried out by rogue actors.

Attempts to improve safety for imprisoned young people have had some success. Legislation, litigation, and administrative policies on the federal and state levels have set higher standards and improved certain conditions while supporting reductions in youth violent crime to 1/3 of its mid-1990s peak.

But while increased standards and oversight have made some abuses easier to prevent or discover, the pattern of danger in youth incarceration continues in even the most-reformed systems.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation has reported officially-documented proof of pervasive or ongoing maltreatment of incarcerated youth in 14 states between 2011-2015, and substantial evidence of it in seven more states.

Despite an eight-year overhaul of Texas’ juvenile prisons, two guards were charged with misdemeanor “official oppression” due to physical assaults on youth in 2013. The prison’s director of security pleaded guilty to deleting footage of one of the assaults -- while seven additional staff failed to report it.

Reforms are crucial in the interim. But 10 bad actors in one facility even after groundbreaking reform indicates a fundamental design defect.

Better patterns are emerging, beginning with acknowledging the urgent need to adopt a different approach.

Last spring, the chair of a gubernatorial commission in Wisconsin called large youth prisons the “dinosaurs of the juvenile justice world,” admitting the high probability of future abuses inside them.

The National Institutes of Justice and Harvard University recently released a report finding that not only do youth prisons contain endemic abuse, but they have remained impervious to reform despite the best efforts of thousands of committed staff and administrators over the course of decades. The report concluded that the youth prison model itself is inherently flawed and inconsistent with adolescent development needs, recommending sound alternatives focused on getting youth back on track.

State and national campaigns are advocating against youth prisons in favor of more effective and rehabilitative supervision models that are safer for young people, the staff who work with them, and the public. And a new report identifies a continuum of community care and youth development services that can safely address youth needs outside of a lockup.

Post-election observers have highlighted the importance of state and local juvenile justice advocacy efforts. Indeed, frank conversations about the danger and ineffectiveness of youth prisons are sometimes best held close to home. Proposed solutions must be informed by evidence of effectiveness, but need not be identical, reflecting local priorities and preferences.

When they know the facts, conservatives and liberals are often similarly concerned about a government response to highly individualized family and community problems that shortchanges rehabilitation and relies on one-size-fits-all punishment occurring outside of public view. This is one reason that states as diverse as Kansas, New York, Texas, and Ohio have closed youth prisons.

Old habits die hard, and it is deceptively easy to assume that the “safest” approach to youth crime involves coercive control behind isolating walls.

Eradicating the abuse patterns fostered by the power, access and secrecy of incarceration will require challenging this assumption every time.

A justice system that subjects adolescents to prison cage matches run by fight club guards does not err on the safe side, for anyone.

Stephanie Kollmann is the Policy Director at the Children and Family Justice Center, Bluhm Legal Clinic, Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law and she is a Public Voices Fellow through The OpEd Project.

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