For as long as youth prisons have existed in the United States, so too has the pretense that there are no youth prisons. Early 19th-century reformers who sought to remove children from the harsh adult penal system established new institutions specifically for the detention of youths. They didn’t call them prisons, but Houses of Refuge, dedicated to the discipline and reform of newly coined group, “juvenile delinquents.” Founded with ostensibly laudable intent, the institutions were overcrowded fortresses, riddled with abuse, serving to institutionalize strict social control over poor and immigrant communities. That is, they were prisons.
And so began the unending march of euphemisms, in which children’s prisons have been known by any other name—residential treatment facilities, youth camps, youth-development centers, to name a few—exposing juveniles to many the same cruelties and racial discriminations of the adult prison system. In the two centuries since its formal birth, the juvenile-justice system has changed radically, while youth prisons have hardly changed at all. It’s as if the clock on reform stopped in the turn-of-the-century Progressive Era and has only recently started shakily ticking again.
Last year, before the election spectacle swallowed the news cycle whole, juvenile-justice reform made headlines as a keystone in President Obama’s legacy-construction efforts. Overdue political action from state houses has gained serious ground in removing youths from adult prisons. On any given day, 10,000 juveniles are housed in adult facilities, where they are five times more likely to be sexually assaulted than in juvenile institutions (a monstrous statistic, especially considering the prevalence of sexual abuse in youth facilities). The necessity of getting kids out of our shameful adult system cannot be overstated. It’s a limited achievement, though. And even as more and more youth prisons close, we must be vigilant against “alternatives” that press the same oppressive, discriminatory stigmas of criminality and delinquency onto kids outside prison walls.
* * *
In March, juvenile-justice-reform organization Youth First published an interactive map and study of US youth prisons, which it counted facilities that are either 100 years old or house over 100 children. Aside from their deceptive, un-prison like names, these primarily state-run institutions reliably bear the marks of adult prisons: razor wire, geographic isolation, the use of solitary confinement and physical restraints. The list includes 80 prisons across 39 states. “The approach these facilities take, that of reform schools, was developed before the invention of the telephone, before the civil war,” Youth First president, Liz Ryan, told The Nation. “Whether the actual facility is newer or not, the approach is the same: throw a large group of children together in a punitive way and expect a positive result.”