A Youth Prison Mirrors Adult Corrections

A teen sits in a segregation cell | photo: Richard Ross

We’re using the mnemonic, l-o-c-k-e-d u-p, to show some of the main characteristics of a youth prison in a series of articles, Locked Up: What is a Youth Prison? One of those traits is that a youth prison often mirrors an adult correctional approach, despite the fact that youth prisons were originally created as an alternative to adult prisons.

In what ways do youth prisons mirror an adult corrections approach?

There are a number of features of an adult correctional approach that are mirrored in youth prisons. To be clear, not every youth prison exhibits all of these features.

Focus on punishment, not rehabilitation

Youth prisons were designed to serve as an alternative to adult prisons by having a more rehabilitative focus. It hasn’t turned out this way in many instances, even when the purpose of the juvenile facility is defined in a state’s statute to rehabilitate youth.

Play this video for some examples of youth prisons that use adult correctional models.

For example, in Connecticut, the Department of Children & Families (DCF) states that the mission of Connecticut’s youth prison, the Connecticut Juvenile Training School (CJTS), “is to provide a safe, secure and therapeutic environment while providing opportunity for growth and success.”

This mission statement which promotes a rehabilitative approach is not consistent with the report and videotapes released by the Office of the Child Advocate last year documenting youth being brutalized by staff. These actions appear to be more about punishment than rehabilitation.

Inside the Connecticut Juvenile Training School | photo: The Hartford Courant

Correctional Officers whose Role is Security and Control

Adult prisons have correctional officers. So do youth prisons. Even though their titles may not match exactly, the role is similar, one that focuses on security and control.

For example, in Kansas, the titles and duties of staff working at a youth prison and an adult prison are nearly identical.

A Juvenile Corrections Officer II at the youth prison in Larned is “responsible for full-range supervisory corrections work in a juvenile correctional facility, ensuring public safety by providing security and control of juvenile offenders.” In addition to supervising other juvenile corrections officers, their primary duties are “to supervise, maintain discipline and control of youth residents in their living quarters, at meals, in classrooms, at work sites, activities and program areas, bathing areas, and while they are being escorted throughout the facility and off grounds as necessary.”

An Illustration of the Larned Juvenile Correctional Center | HTK Architects

At the Norton Correctional facility, an adult prison in Kansas, a Corrections Officer is “responsible for controlling inmates in living, work or recreational areas on a specific post in a corrections institution and providing functional supervision to lower level Corrections Officers assigned to the post.”

Use of Chemical & Mechanical Restraints

Youth prisons utilize chemical and physical restraints to control youth, a practice similar to what is utilized in adult prisons.

Pepper spray | photo: Smith & Wesson

For instance, youth prisons sometimes use pepper spray, a chemical restraint that creates a painful burning sensation and inflames the respiratory tract when inhaled.

Experts note that this practice is viewed as extreme and that facilities utilizing pepper spray are outliers.

However, through the Survey of Youth in Residential Placement (SYRP), which was the first-ever nationally representative survey of youth in correctional care, we know that 30% of youth in placement lived in units where one or more residents experienced the use of pepper spray.

Press reports also show that this may be more widespread, especially in a number of states, including California, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Texas, and Wisconsin.

Additionally, youth prisons use mechanical restraints. The Juvenile Offenders and Victims 2014 report shows that one in four facilities themselves reported using mechanical restraints, with the highest rates at youth prisons (referred to in this study as ‘training schools’). The SYRP also shows that 29% of youth lived with one or more residents who received time in a restraint chair.

A restraint chair | photo: Richard Ross

Culture of Violence & Victimization

The Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Jails and Prisons report’s top finding is that, “Violence remains a serious problem in America’s prisons and jails.”

While difficult to compare rates, violence and victimization are a serious problem in youth prisons.

The Maltreatment of Youth in U.S. Correctional Facilities report released by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, states that the SYRP “confirmed that fear of violence and staff maltreatment remain widespread in America’s youth corrections facilities.”

According to the SYRP, a majority of youth experienced some kind of victimization while in custody, such as theft, robbery, physical assault or sexual assault. Youth victimization increased when staff used methods to physically control youth such as handcuffs, chains, pepper spray, restraint chair or strip search. And the longer youth were incarcerated, the survey shows that those youth experienced higher rates of violence.

Sexual victimization is also prevalent in youth prisons. The latest data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) shows that one in ten youth incarcerated in the juvenile justice system report being sexually victimized. According to BJS report, rates of sexual victimization of incarcerated youth in the juvenile justice system have doubled over the last decade from 19 per 1,000 youths in 2005 to 47 per 1,000 in 2012.

Solitary Confinement

The ACLU defines solitary confinement as “the practice of placing a prisoner alone in a cell for 22‐24 hours a day with little human contact or interaction; reduced or no natural light; restriction or denial of reading material, television, radios and other property; severe limits on visitation; and the inability to participate in group activities. Almost all human contact occurs while the prisoner is in restraints and behind some sort of barrier.” This is used for an estimated 80,000 individuals incarcerated in adult prisons on any given day in the U.S.

In youth prisons, solitary confinement is also utilized. However, it is not typically called “solitary confinement” but referred by correctional staff as “protective custody,” “administrative segregation,” “seclusion,” “isolation,” or “room confinement,” or by the youth as “the hole” or “the box,” among other terms.

A teen sits in a segregation cell | photo: Richard Ross

According to the Juvenile Offenders and Victims 2014 report, the analysis shows that one in five facilities where youth are confined in the juvenile justice system reported locking youth in some type of isolation, with the youth prisons (referred to in this study as “training schools”) as the most likely to lock a youth alone in some type of seclusion for 4 or more hours.

Incarcerated youth (35%) surveyed under the SYRP reported being isolated — locked up alone or confined to their room with no contact with other residents. The vast majority of youth who were isolated (87%) said this was for longer than 2 hours, and more than half (55%) said it was for longer than 24 hours. More than half of the youth isolated for longer than two hours said that they had not met with a counselor since coming to the facility.

Dehumanizing & Degrading Practices

There are so many dehumanizing and degrading practices in adult prisons, too many to recount here. There is no national data collected on these kinds of practices inside youth prisons so we do not have a full snapshot. What we hear from youth who have been incarcerated is that some of these have been adopted by youth prisons and in some instances, have become a routine part of their operations.

For example, strip searching and shackling in youth prisons is all too common.

When youth return from court, or after visits with their families or their lawyers, youth are often strip searched for the purpose of finding contraband on the youth. Youth are shackled when they are transported to or from court or other appointments. Sometimes youth are shackled inside the facility.

One state where both these practices are in regular use is Maryland. A recent Baltimore Sun article notes the harm of these practices on youth stating that, “Public defenders, child advocates and mental health experts say the juveniles, most of whom have already experienced trauma, are further traumatized by strip searches and shackling. Critics contend that both tactics rob them of their constitutional rights to due process and privacy, and undermine the very goal of the juvenile system — to rehabilitate youths.”

Another kind of dehumanizing and lethal practice, uncovered in Florida shows that corrections officers place a “snack bounty” on youth that they want to punish by providing snacks to other youth for attacking this youth. The youth fight and thus the correctional officers avoid any responsibility. A youth, Omar Paisley, died last year as a result of a “snack bounty” and recently another youth, Elord Revolte, died after being attacked by 20 youth.

Lack of Staff Accountability

Rarely are correctional officers prosecuted for their inappropriate behavior in the juvenile or criminal justice systems.

For example, experts report that prosecutions of correctional guards for sexual victimization are “extremely rare.”

Even after a death of a child in custody, prosecutions are rare.

After the death of Gynnya McMillen in a juvenile detention center in Kentucky, no corrections staff have been prosecuted. The agency head and several staff were fired but to date, no staff have been charged in relation to her death.

Correctional staff operating with impunity for their inappropriate, degrading or illegal actions deters youth from reporting victimization by staff or other youth. This wall of silence furthers the violence and victimization inside youth prisons.

What does this mean?

In so many ways, youth prisons are like adult prisons. What was once created as an alternative to an adult corrections approach, youth prisons are too often simply an imitation of adult corrections.

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Next week is K’ for ‘Kids’…