What Is A Youth Prison?

A teen plays basketball inside the Kewanee Youth Center | photo: The Chicago Tribune

For a young person who experiences life behind the walls of a youth prison, it can mean many things. We’re using the mnemonic, l-o-c-k-e-d u-p to show some of these key characteristics of a youth prison. This article is the first in a series, Locked Up: What is a Youth Prison?

L = Large One of those traits is that a youth prison is large.

What do we mean by large?

Most youth who are confined to secure care in the juvenile justice system are in facilities of between 50 and 200 beds according to the Sentencing Project’s latest report on juvenile justice, Youth Commitments and Facilities. And, at least 34 of the nation’s largest facilities still in operation today can house more than 200 youth; 19 of which have a design capacity of more than 300, 400 or even 500 beds.

Over thirty would be considered large, according to youth justice experts.

Longtime youth justice expert Paul DeMuro says that, “It’s critical that the facility director know every kid by name.” If the facility director can’t do that, the facility is too large. DeMuro believes that thirty youth should be the maximum number.

Similarly, Annie E. Casey Foundation President Patrick McCarthy speaking before a packed ballroom of juvenile justice stakeholders at the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI) convening in September, 2015, highlighted that if youth are in secure care, facilities should be no more than 30 beds.

The public agrees.

Recent public opinion polling conducted earlier this year shows that the public supports what experts believe. According to a poll conducted by GBA Strategies, 72% of Americans recommend that for youth who pose a serious risk to public safety and need secure care that facilities should be no more than 30 youth.

Polling in states such as Connecticut and Virginia also produced the same results.

And research supports this too.

The Missouri model in juvenile justice, which is lauded for its low recidivism rates for youth in custody, has 33 youth facilities with an average 27 youth per facility.

And new research from the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) about rates of sexual victimization of incarcerated youth in the juvenile justice system, show that youth facilities holding 25 or more youth report much higher rates of sexual misconduct by staff members. Considering that allegations of sexual victimization of youth in juvenile facilities have more than doubled in the last decade, this underscores the concern about safety of youth in large facilities.

We can draw from research in other related fields, such as education where there has been a lot of research about the impact of class size in K-12 education. The average class size in the U.S. is now 15 as a result of research showing that smaller is better for kids.

What does large look like?

An example of large is a facility in Illinois, the Illinois Youth Center in Kewanee referred to as just Kewanee. This youth prison was designed to house 354 youth. Built in 2001, it now houses as many as 260 youth. More than 40% of the youth at Kewanee are from Cook County, some 150 miles away.

The Kewanee Youth Center in Kewanee, Illinois can incarcerate 354 kids | photo: Google Earth

Kewanee was cited in a 2013 report by oversight group, the John Howard Association, for having an unusually high number of youth on crisis or suicide watch.

Fortunately, Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner announced that Kewanee will be closed.

The Lincoln Hills Youth Canter in Irma, Wisconsin can incarcerate 559 kids | photo: Wisconsin Department of Corrections

Another example is the Lincoln Hills youth facility in Irma, Wisconsin. Lincoln Hills is one of the largest youth prisons in the country with capacity for more than 550 youth, and has been the subject of federal and state investigations in the last 18 months over alleged abuse, including sexual victimization, of youth. Press reports of these investigations by the U.S. Department of Justice and Wisconsin state agencies reference sexual abuse of youth, use of pepper spray, strangulation and suffocation of youth, intimidation of youth to discourage reporting, and tampering with state and county laws concerning youth institutions.

What does this mean?

In juvenile justice, size matters. Larger isn’t better. In fact, it’s worse. A youth detention or correctional facility over 25–30 beds is considered large, one of the key traits of a youth prison.

Stay tuned for “O = Old, Outdated” for next week.