The 411 on Youth Prisons

Photo by Richard Ross

Last week, the Youth First Initiative released a map of the nation’s 80 oldest and largest youth prisons in 39 states. While the federal government collects and publishes data from all the states on the number of youth who are incarcerated in the U.S., a comprehensive list of all the facilities isn’t public. This information had to be collected and analyzed by hand from all 50 states thanks to Jill Ward’s work with the support of many people in the states over many months. And these facilities, the largest and the oldest, are only the a subset of all the youth prisons.

Let’s take a look at some of the youth prisons on the list using the mnemonic: locked up.

L = Large

Practitioners and experts acknowledge that size does matter. Longtime youth justice expert Paul Demuro says that the facility director should know the name of every youth and their family; thirty youth should be the maximum number.

Similarly, Annie E. Casey Foundation President Patrick McCarthy speaking before a packed ballroom of juvenile justice stakeholders last September, highlighted that if youth are in secure care, facilities should be no more than 30 beds. And recent public opinion polling concurs.

Yet, most youth confined to secure care, are in facilities of between 50 and 200 beds according to the Sentencing Project’s report on Youth Commitments and Facilities.

Here’s an example:

The Illinois Youth Center in Kewanee, referred to as “Kewanee”, was designed to house 354 youth, nearly 12 times the facility size recommended by youth justice experts. 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. 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 would be closed.

O = Old model

The youth prison “model” was established nearly 200 years ago with the first facility, the New York House of Refuge, opening on January 1, 1825.

Of the 80 facilities on the list, 18 of them were actually built in the 1800’s, with several of them still utilizing the same actual buildings. Others have been renovated or completely rebuilt.

Whether the building was built in the 1800’s or more recently, the model is essentially the same. The names of the buildings may have changed too but they still disguise what the facility actually is: a youth prison.

Let’s look at the Arkansas Juvenile Assessment and Treatment Center in Alexander.

It was established in 1905 and designed to house 143 youth, including 15 girls. The facility is run by G4S, a world wide corporation that has been in the news a lot recently over the abuse of youth in one of its’ facilities in England.

According to the Disability Rights Center (DRC) of Arkansas in a 2014 report, the photos appear to be anything but treatment oriented. The report details a troubled history of this facility.

C = (Adult) Correctional approach & practices

Some of the correctional approaches and practices used in the adult criminal justice system are used.

For example, solitary confinement, excessive use of force, and use of mechanical restraints has been a mainstay of Ohio’s youth prisons, most especially at the Circleville Juvenile Correctional Center which was cited in 2013 as having the highest number of hours of use of solitary confinement in Ohio’s youth prisons averaging 917.5 hours, or 38 days per youth for the year, and in 2014 for having the most incidents of use of force.

Another example is the New Jersey Training School. This youth prison was established in 1867 and has been the subject of litigation over the use of solitary confinement, known as “the box”, a seven-by-seven room with no windows and only a bed, sink and toilet where youth would be placed for 22 or more hours per day.

While Ohio and New Jersey appeared to have made some positive strides to reduce solitary confinement through successful litigation and legislation, these reforms are very recent and need to be implemented.

Solitary confinement is still allowed in youth facilities in 24 states.

K = Kids

A reminder that these are kids we are talking about.

E = Excludes families

The Youth First polling shows that Americans strongly believe (89%) that a youth’s family should be included in the design of treatment and rehabilitation plans for youth.

This isn’t the case in many instances. Take the Eldora State Training School for Boys established In 1868 as an example.

Perhaps the agency does want to engage families. You wouldn’t know it from it’s website.

On the state agency’s website, there is one page of information about Eldora. The word “Family” or “Parent” isn’t mentioned at all. There is no parent handbook. Visitation hours aren’t listed. There is no information about parents’ involvement at all.

One sentence does stand out:

For youth placed at this facility, this could very well be their last chance to redirect their lives before falling into the adult correctional system.

Not a promising sentiment for a facility that the state says is designed to rehabilitate youth.

D = Disparities & Distance from family and community


Racial and ethnic disparities in the incarceration of youth are profound. Despite the drop in youth incarceration, too many youth are still locked up, and racial disparities among committed youth have widened. This data shows that youth of color are much more likely to be incarcerated despite the fact that they commit roughly the same level of juvenile crime as white youth. According to the Haywood Burns Institute, African-American youth are 5 times more likely to be incarcerated than white youth, Native American youth are 3.2 times more likely to be incarcerated than white youth, and Latino youth are 2 times more likely to be incarcerated than white youth, and in some individual states, this disparity is profoundly higher.

In some states the disparities are exponential.

African American youth are 24 times more likely than white youth to be incarcerated in New Jersey and Connecticut.


In Families Unlocking Futures, a survey of family members shows that families want the juvenile justice system to locate facilities and programs closer to home (91%). The public concurs.

However, this is not the case for most of the facilities in this roster.

For instance:

Boys in Arizona are held at Adobe Mountain South and girls are held at Adobe Mountain North.

While centrally located in Phoenix, Arizona where 51% of the youth are coming from, research shows that the Adobe Mountain School North and South are located hours from other locations where youth are coming from such as Cochise County (4 hour drive), Mohave County (3 hour drive), Pima County (3 hour drive), Pinal County (2 hour drive) and Yuma County (2 hour drive).

Another example is Virginia.

Virginia’s two youth prisons, the Beaumont Juvenile Corrections Center, where boys are housed, was established in 1890 and the Bon Air Juvenile Corrections Center, with both boys and girls, was established in 1910, both designed for 284 youth each are located over 100 miles away from areas where most youth are coming from.

U = Under investigation

For the Lincoln Hills School and the Copper Lake School in Wisconsin “under investigation” would be an “under statement.”

Lincoln Hills School for boys, designed as one of the largest youth prisons at 559 beds, and its companion facility, the Copper Hills School where roughly 40 girls are housed, are under investigation over allegations of abuse, excessive use of force and retaliation against accusers. In fact, more than one entity is investigating. In December, 2015, federal and state officials were reported to have raided both facilities after a year-long investigation and in February, 2016, it was reported that the Federal Bureau of Investigation took over the investigation. The US Attorney for the region has said that he has asked for the US Department of Justice to conduct a civil rights investigation.

Unfortunately, Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake are not anomalies. Almost every state has experienced systemic or recurring maltreatment and according to Maltreatment of Youth in U.S. Corrections Facilities, this has increased from 22 states to 29 states in the past five years.

P = (Adult) Prison-like Features

Connecticut’s sole youth prison, the Connecticut Juvenile Training School, aka “CJTS” was established in 1854 and then completely rebuilt in 2001. It was designed to incarcerate 250 youth and has an operational capacity of 147 including a 12 bed unit for girls. CJTS has a large razor wire fence around the perimeter. It was the facility born of the corruption that landed former Governor John Rowland in prison. CJTS was modeled after a maximum security prison in Marion, Ohio (shuttered 7 years ago).

Last summer, CJTS made headlines when the Office of the Child Advocate in Connecticut released a report citing excessive use of restraints with a quarter of the youth restrained in any given month. Subsequent release of videos of the use of restraints and isolation.

As a result, the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance and its’ allies called for the closure of CJTS in a statement on September 15, 2015, and in early December, Governor Daniel Malloy stated in interviews with media outlets that he would close the youth prison.

The fact that governors of three states Connecticut, Illinois and Virginia have committed to closing four of the youth prisons on this list over the next several years is good news. That will still mean fierce advocacy to ensure closures happen and resources are redirected to alternatives to incarceration for youth in their communitiess.

That also means that there are 76 more youth prisons to close. And that’s only counting the biggest and oldest ones.

Remembering that these are kids and they are locked up, youth prisons can’t close fast enough.