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The Case for Abolishing Juvenile Prisons: How Isolating Minors Who Need Connection Endangers Us All

Nell Bernstein discusses the harm and the horror of putting teenagers in prison.

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From their very founding in America in 1825, juvenile prisons were designed to rip teenagers from their homes and communities and isolate them as punishment. Nearly two centuries later, they operate under the same design, despite research that proves these institutions are harmful to both people and society. Instead of helping teens, the violence and trauma experienced in these prisons put them on a dangerous path, increasing their odds of committing crimes in the future and ultimately making the public less safe.

In her new book Burning Down the House: The End of Juvenile Prison, Nell Bernstein efficiently argues for the abolishment of these large locked facilities. First, Bernstein details the ongoing physical and sexual abuse that occurs within juvenile prison walls. She then moves on to illustrate why reforming these prisons is nearly impossible — as even some of the more rehabilitative institutions have solitary cells. Filled with personal stories from the teens she’s interviewed, Bernstein’s book offers a deeper look into the problems intrinsic to these institutions and the cruelty they perpetuate.

The following is an edited Q&A with Bernstein.

Alyssa Figueroa: In the first part of your book, you detail the cruel conditions juveniles endure in prison, especially at the hands of the guards. Can you talk about what you learned?

Nell Bernstein: I knew that abuses happened. For example when you look at the research from the federal government, something over a third of kids have either witnessed or experienced unnecessary force, but truly that is another way of saying abuse. Twelve percent have been raped or otherwise sexually assaulted. And what's really important to know about that figure is that, again, I think the message is that it's the other kids you have to watch out for. We have the "don't drop the soap" jokes, but it turned out that of that 12 percent, 10 out of those 12 were being sexually assaulted by guards.

Aside from the fact that that's obviously traumatic, I think it's also extremely corrosive morally to kids who are doing time often for much, much less serious offenses to see the degree to which they're held "accountable" compared to the degree to which those who offend against them are not... because that sends them a message about how much we value them, which is very little. 

There’s an example of a girl who talked about being incarcerated for something related to sex work or prostitution. The man who abused her was her counselor — that speaks to the idea of the therapeutic prison. At first, he made her tell him in great detail what she had done with other men, and then he made her do those things with him. Not only did he abuse her, he kind of used her prior trauma for his own titillation. It just kind of defies the imagination. 

AF: How do the guards come to do such cruelty?

NB: It's a question I really struggled with because... I was really troubled by the question of how some, and I do want to emphasize some, could perpetrate some pretty horrific abuses, and others could just kind of look the other way.

I guess there were two people who helped me to understand that. One was a young man named Will Roy, who was my research assistant on the book. He said, "You've got to remember, these guys have been there for 20 years, and this is their job, and we are essentially the product. We're not human after a while; we're the product. If I get in a fight or start kicking my door, cause some kind of problem, that's the equivalent to running out of coffee filters or not having enough stirrers. You're then going to have a bad day."

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