Youth Prisons are Old, Outdated, and Obsolete

Youth Prisoners Sent to Work in the Fields of Arkansas, 1903 | photo: Detroit Photographic Company

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 second in the series, Locked Up: What is a Youth Prison? One of those traits is that a youth prison is old, outdated and obsolete.

How old is the youth prison model?

Established nearly 200 years ago, the first youth prison was the New York House of Refuge, opening on January 1, 1825. It was the first youth prison to be established in the world and by the end of the 19th century, every state in the US had one.

Called many names over time, starting with houses of refuge, then reformatories, then industrial schools, then training schools, to an assortment of names today, including school, institute, development or correctional center, this model has changed little.

No matter what it has been called over the years or when it was built, youth prisons are based on the same model.

What is the model based on?

Dr. Anthony Platt details the concepts underpinning the youth prison model from old reports dating from the late 1800’s and early 1900’s in his book The Child Savers:

Principles of the Juvenile Reform School:

(1) Young offenders must be segregated from the corrupting influences of adult criminals.

(2) Delinquents need to be removed from their environment and imprisoned for their own good and protection. Reformatories should be guarded sanctuaries, combing love and guidance with firmness and restraint.

(3) Delinquents should be assigned to reformatories without trial and with minimal legal requirements. Due process is not required because reformatories are intended to reform and not punish.

(4) Sentences should be indeterminate, so that inmates are encouraged to cooperate in their own reform and recalcitrant delinquents are not allowed to resume their criminal careers.

(5) Reformation should not be confused with sentimentality. Punishment is required only insofar as it is good for the punished person and only when other methods have been exhausted.

(6) Inmates must be protected from idleness, indulgence and luxuries through military drill, physical exercise, and constant supervision.

(7) Reformatories should be built in the countryside and designed according to the “cottage plan.”

(8) Labor, education and religion should constitute the essential program of reform. Inmates should not be given more than an elementary education. Industrial and agricultural training should predominate.

(9) The value of sobriety, thrift, industry, prudence, ‘realistic’ ambition, and adjustment must be taught.

Why was it created?

The youth prison was created out of a desire to keep youth of adult jails and prisons. At the National Conference on Social Welfare in 1901, Edwin Wentworth, Superintendent of the State Reform School in Portland, Maine, noted this by saying that, “little boys and girls convicted of petty offences were thrust into the common jail, to associate with vile and hardened offenders, there to receive instruction in crime that would eventually make them hopeless criminals, who would burden and menace society, they perceived the necessity of an institution to which youthful criminals could be committed, to be reformed in character and restored to the world as honest and law-abiding persons.”

How has it worked?

However well intentioned it may have been, the youth prison model has had a long sorted history of abuse, litigation and reform.

In Last One Over the Wall a book about his work to close all the youth prisons in Massachusetts in the early 1970’s, the late Jerry Miller sums up this trend. He writes, “Whenever I thought we’d made progress, something happened — a beating, a kid in an isolation cell, an offhand remark by a superintendent or cottage supervisor that told me what I envisioned would never be allowed. Reformers come and reformers go. State institutions carry on. Nothing in their history suggests that they can sustain reform, no matter what money, staff and programs are pumped into them. The same crises that have plagued them for 150 years intrude today. Though the casts may changed, the players go on producing failure.”

In truth, the model has never actually worked. It has been an abysmal failure from the start. Today the data still shows high rates of recidivism of youth incarcerated in youth prisons and increased likelihood of adult criminal justice system involvement for these youth. What started as an alternative has become a feeder system in the adult criminal justice system.

The perimeter fence at the New Jersey State Training School | photo: The Marshall Project

At its’ core, it is institutional, not homelike, attempting to replace a youth’s family and at the same time, devoid of positive, caring relationships. In her seminal book on the youth prison, Burning Down the House, Nell Bernstein captures this stating, “When I interviewed wards of the current system more than 150 years later, I asked them what they thought might improve their lives and prospects. The great majority offered the very same answer: trusting relationships with adults who saw them as human beings. However many children longed for this, few had experienced it, despite the countless cycles of ‘reform’ over the intervening years.”

What does old, outdated and obsolete look like?

Let’s look at the Florida State Reform School, also known as the Florida Industrial School for Boys and more recently as the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, established over 100 years ago in January, 1900.

Originally designed to house children with delinquent offenses, Dozier also housed young people for truancy, running away and “incorrigibility.” Children in the child welfare system were also housed there.

Almost from the start, there were reported abuses and investigations, even though the facility was created to help children, according to press reports. More recently, the US Department of Justice issued a findings letter in 2011 on the conditions at the facility.

A gruesome report released earlier this year details the results of an investigation into the deaths of more than 100 boys in Dozier’s history buried on the grounds.

The cemetery of the former Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Marianna | photo: Michael Spooneybarger, Reuters

Many of the causes of death at Dozier are unknown because records are missing and the location of burials is not known. According to the report, “This absence of record keeping and absence of grave markers suggest intent to obfuscate the true number of burials located at the School and to hinder later potential investigations into the true causes of specific individuals’ deaths.”

The known factors leading to the boys’ deaths were traced to fires, physical trauma, drowning, disease, and deaths following attempted escapes. Youths were flogged, and placed in isolation, including one instance of a youth dying form being placed in a sweat box.

The Dozier report highlights the fact that the vast majority of the boys buried at the school (67 percent) were African American.

The extent of the loss of family ties for the children at Dozier has yet to be fully told. The report alludes to the fact that so many of the children couldn’t afford the bus fare home and had to work in labor camps to raise the needed funds to go home, and as we now know, dozens of boys never made it home.

Ultimately Dozier was closed in 2011.

Yet, even with this sordid history of scandal and abuse, Florida still employs the youth prison model, now using all private contractors, including G4S, a multi-national company that has been under investigation in the U.K. for abuse of children.

Another example is the Arkansas Juvenile Assessment and Treatment Center in Alexander.

Established in 1905 and designed to house 143 youth, including 15 girls, the facility is run by G4S.

Arkansas Juvenile Assessment and Treatment Center | photo: Arkansas Department of Human Services

In a series of articles, starting with “Welcome to Hell” on June 14, 1998, the Arkansas Democrat Gazette has written extensively about the abuse in this facility.

The U.S. Department of Justice issued a findings letter about conditions in the facility violating constitutional rights of the youth.

And according to the Disability Rights Center (DRC) of Arkansas in a 2014 report, the facility continues to be troubled.

In another region of the country, there’s the New Jersey State Training School.

When you drive through the entrance of the facility, you notice the year it was established on the front gate: 1867.

Campus map of the New Jersey State Training School, formerly named the New Jersey State Home for Boys | image: public archive

This facility uses “cottages” to house youth. The use of “cottages” was introduced around the time the facility was established in an attempt to make the institution more “homelike.”

Postcard depicts one of the original buildings at the New Jersey State Training School, circa 1907 | image: cardcow.com

However, that clearly hasn’t worked as this facility is notorious for its use of solitary confinement of youth, having been exposed in the news over a lawsuit on the treatment of youth at the facility.

What does this mean?

With the torrid history of abuse and scandal and the fact that these institutions have poor outcomes for youth and communities, the National Academy of Sciences’ Reforming Juvenile Justice report underscores why states should stop relying on this model stating that, “The fundamental case for reform is that public safety can be well-served — indeed, better served — by abandoning a confinement-oriented correctional approach in favor of community-based services for the majority of juveniles who can be safely supervised in the community.”

An incarcerated youth looks out his window at the New Jersey State Training School | photo: The Associated Press

Similar models, such as orphanages and Indian boarding schools, created in roughly the same era for different purposes, have also been found to be harmful to children. These “well intentioned” institutions that warehoused and separated children from their communities were found harmful to children and are now abandoned.

Let’s hope that the youth prison is mothballed as well. It can’t come soon enough for the kids locked up there.


Stay tuned for “C = Correctional” for next week.