The Imitation Game: Youth Prisons Mimic Adult Prisons

A Youth Prisoner in Isolation | 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’s physical features often imitate adult prisons, despite the fact that youth prisons were originally created as an alternative to adult prisons.

In what ways do youth prisons’ physical features imitate adult prisons?

There are a number of features of adult prisons that are imitated in youth prisons. To be clear, not every youth prison has all of these physical features. Youth prisons constructed in the 1990’s, some with federal grant funding, are more apt to have some of the features discussed.

Let’s start with the location of the juvenile justice agency as that can impact what youth prisons look like and how they are run. According to the National Center for Juvenile Justice, there are ten juvenile justice agencies that are now part of the Adult Correctional agency in their state.

It is important to note the location of the facility. In many states, youth prisons, like adult prisons, are geographically isolated and far from family and community. For example, the Lincoln Hills youth prison in Wisconsin, the state’s youth prison and the largest in the United States, is located more than three hours from Milwaukee, where the largest number of youth are sent from.

Other ways that youth prisons imitate adult prisons are in the physical features of the facility itself. Here is list of more than a dozen of those similar physical features:

(1) Razor wire fence around the perimeter of the prison and sometimes around specific buildings.

Arizona Adobe Mountain School | Photo: The Arizona Republic

(2) Concrete or Brick buildings that look like adult prisons.

Larned Juvenile Correctional Complex | image: Google Earth

(3) Locks everywhere, on cell doors, on hallways, corridors and wings of the facility, and at the public entrance and exit, and the the sallyport where youth enter.

Teen in Isolation | Photo: Richard Ross

(4) Cells with steel doors, sometimes with steel beds and small opening for food or wet cells with a toilet & sink.

Incarcerated Youth in Cell in the New Jersey Training School | Photo: The Associated Press

(5) Isolation or Segregation cells, often no sheets, blankets or pillows.

Young Woman in Isolation | Photo: Richard Ross

(6) Hardware that includes handcuffs, shackles, chains, restraints and restraint chairs.

A Restraining Chair | Photo: Richard Ross

(7) Furniture purchased from correctional catalogues.

Molded Chairs via Correctional Catalogues

(8) Dining room tables & seats fastened to the floor with no cushions.

Incarcerated Youth in Dining Room | Photo: Richard Ros

(9) Communal bathrooms and showers visible by guards and no privacy.

Communal Bathrooms in a Youth Prison

(10) Clothing that consists of prison-like jumpsuits and under garments that are sometimes washed in the general laundry and not returned to the original owner.

Youth Prisoners in Issued Jumpsuits | Photo: Richard Ross
Bob Barker Deodorant via Prison Canteen

(11) Generic personal hygiene products purchased (often at a higher cost) from correctional catalogues. Deoderant, body soap and shampoo are sometimes not available or you have to buy it yourself, or it is not designed for all skin or hair types. Other products such as body lotion, toothpaste, toothbrushes, dental floss are sometimes not available at all.

(12) Food that is carb loaded, greasy and fatty with limited access to fresh fruits and vegetables. On occasion, youths’ food needs not provided for, dietary restrictions not accounted for and almost no culturally relevant and religious holiday food are allowed. Utensils, trays and cups are all plastic.

Incarcerated Youth in Dining Room | Photo: Isadora Kosofsky

(13) Glass separates youth from their families and loved ones.

A Glass Partition Separates Inmates from Their Families | Photo: The Hamilton Spectator

(14) Costly phone calls and video conferencing instead of in-person contact.

Incarcerated Youth on Phone | Photo: International Business Times

(15) Security stations with cameras separating staff from youth.

Security Station | Photo: The Hartford Courant


What started as an alternative to adult prisons, has become an imitation of them and in some cases, an exact replica. There are likely many reasons.

Here are just a few:

Youth and adult correctional agencies sometimes utilize the same architects and construction companies, so that youth prisons are built using the same designs as adult prisons and / or constructed by the same companies.

There is more flexibility to use the prisons interchangeably if they are similar. Some youth prisons that are being closed are used for adult prisons and some former adult prisons are being used to incarcerate youth.

It’s the “It’s what we’ve always done” excuse. Change is hard and creativity is lacking in the justice arena.

What does this mean?

Environment matters. A youth’s physical environment can greatly impact a youth, more than it would later in life. In fact, the youth’s physical environment could negatively impact that young person’s development — physically and mentally — at one of the most formative times during their life.

The juvenile justice system, like the adult criminal justice system, appears to value concrete and steel over relationships.

The adult-prison like features in a youth prison seem to fit with the narrative that these are just mini-prisons and that youth are being trained for entrance into the adult criminal justice system and placement in adult prisons.

Ultimately, this means harsher punishment, disparate treatment of and more segregation for youth of color.

And that’s a wrap to the “Locked Up: What is a Youth Prison?” series! Using the mnemonic l-o-c-k-e-d u-p, we published a piece describing a key characteristic of a youth prison. The series is designed to illustrate what youth prisons are (and aren’t). Here are the links to the series:

L = Large

O = Old, Outdated, & Obsolete

C = (Adult) Correctional Approach

K = Kids are locked up here

E = Excludes families

D = Disparities in race & ethnicity

U = Under Scrutiny

P = (Adult) Prison-like Features