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."

There's that intrinsic dehumanization that happens when you make being your brother's keeper somebody's job.

The other person who helps me understand this again partially was Vinnie Schiraldi who at the time was the probation commissioner in New York and is a longtime advocate who then went on to run the system in DC and then this job in New York.

He talked about arriving in DC to just a horrific situation. The phrase that he used was "cognitive dissonance." He would talk about a new guard, who arrives and it looks like a pretty good job, and he thinks he might do some good and help some kids, but in his first few weeks, he sees some of this stuff. He might witness a kid getting beaten up or any one of these scenarios.

I’m paraphrasing him here, but in that moment, he has to make a decision. "Do I play along? Do I not say anything? Or do I do the right thing and report this and basically become a pariah and possible a target myself?” Those who make the third decision may not stick around that long. Those who make the first two, I think, as Vinnie put it, "a little bit of evil creeps in" so that the next time something like that happens, it's just that much easier.

AF: The violence young people experience often works to retraumatize them, you state in your book. You write how they have trauma before they even step into the institutions. Can you talk about that, and what role prisons play in increasing this trauma?

NB: If you look at the research, a very high percentage of young people who wind up behind bars have experienced some kind of trauma or many kinds of trauma when they were younger, whether it's abuse at home or violence on the street. A lot of loss as well—a lot of kids will talk about the death of a grandparent or the arrest of a parent, the loss of an important relationship leading to a period of acting out. If they're among the groups that were arrested for that, that can then cycle into this sort of escalating delinquency.

It makes sense. A little kid who's upset is going to throw something. An older kid who's angry may do something that's against the law, especially when, remember, 80 to 90 percent of all American teenagers have broken the law in a way that could get them incarcerated. It just makes sense.

But when you take a kid who's been traumatized and first of all, isolate that kid, so strip away all existing relationships and don’t provide healthy new relationships, you're sort of ensuring that she doesn't get what she needs in order to heal. Then when on top of that you add new traumas, it's just sort of such a setup really. It's kind of heartbreaking.

AF: And this violence and trauma predictably leads these minors down a destructive path. Throughout the book you remind readers that juvenile prisons increase the odds that minors will commit more crimes in the future.

Can you talk about that discovery and what else surprised you?

NB: I was actually surprised to learn that being in a juvenile prison was the greatest predictor that a kid would wind up in adult prison — greater than family issues, gang issues, greater than the crimes themselves. In fact, being incarcerated as a juvenile, just about doubled your chances of ending up in an adult prison. I understood that the effects were negative, but I didn't understand that it was quite that consistently an expected experience.

The other thing I didn't know going in was that, in confidential interviews, something between 80 and 90 percent of all American teenagers will tell you that they have committed an act or acts of delinquency that are serious enough to get them locked up. It's not like there are two groups of kids, delinquents and non-delinquents. It turns out that "delinquency" is a developmental phase. What really makes the difference is how we intervene with a particular kid.

AF: Yes, and we choose to lock some away, we tell ourselves, for their benefit and ours. What is the stated mission of juvenile prisons, and what’s actually going on?

NB: Rehabilitation or changing the child for the better, acting in the child's best interest, has always been the stated goal of the facilities, going back to the early 1800s and the Houses of Refuge, which were the first institutions. One thing that was surprising to me was to learn that, although that's always been the stated goal, it's actually never been the practice; that the kind of abuses we see now in our juvenile facilities actually predated these very early facilities as well and pretty much always have.

There's a story that we tell ourselves about a gradual transition from a rehabilitative system to a more punitive one, and there's elements of truth to it, but the bottom line is that for those locked away, it's always been experienced as punishment. 

AF: And usually it’s poor children or children of minorities who get targeted and experience this punishment.

NB: It was interesting to learn that not only are “racial disparities” not new, those also were built into the system from the very beginning. Quite explicitly the Houses of Refuges were intended as a way of getting the children of poor Irish and German immigrants off the street, and that the growth in the number of juvenile institutions paralleled a rapid growth in immigration.

It's kind of unstated, but these facilities have always been intended for "other people's children" in whatever group that may be at a particular time.

AF: Today, you say it's overwhelmingly black and Latino children being locked up?

NB: Yes.

AF: What about the prisons focused on treatment?

NB: Treatment is the new kind of catchphrase for those who are trying to reform from the inside. I visited several treatment-oriented juvenile facilities and had some hope for them because a lot of the things that we do now understand about treatment, like the fact that trusting relationships are essential to it, that the kid has to feel safe in order to successfully be treated — these are principles that were part of the training and the transition when some juvenile facilities took on the therapeutic mandate.

What I found from the kids though, is that it's very hard to feel safe "running your story," as they say, in treatment when the person who has the key to your cell is in the room and in some cases, running the group. Sometimes kids would even say that they were told this is a safe place, you should talk about how you're feeling, etc., etc., but if they didn't tell their story with the level of detail that the facilitator wanted or if they told it in a way that contradicted their official file, they might get written up, and that might then affect their release date. So there's another kind of intrinsic contradiction there.

AF: This is part of the reason you write that reform has ultimately failed. Can you talk about why it doesn't work?

NB: Let's say that we could clean up all the abuse and that kids weren't getting raped and weren't getting beaten and weren't getting thrown into solitary confinement — although there has never been a time when that was the case, let's pretend that could happen. The thing about the kind of key tasks of adolescent development: Forming close relationships, learning to make independent decisions including making mistakes along the way, learning to take increasing responsibilities for yourself in your life, and then just figuring out who you are and what your place in the world is going to be: none of that is possible in isolation.

When a kid acts out through delinquency, the emotion that they're usually acting out is a need for connection, so to respond by isolating them is just profoundly counterintuitive. You’ve got the fact that we've got a few centuries of history and we've never been able to clean up the abuse. Then you've got the fact that it kind of defies logic that isolating a young person when all of the research, and I think everything we know from our own lives is that we grow and change which I think is what rehabilitation is, through relationship.

AF: So if reform is not working, what do we do? What should be the steps?

NB: I think the first step is to get the kids out of these places and into community based programs if they need them, or since we know that just doing nothing has outcomes that are about 100 percent better than sending a kid to these facilities, then maybe in some cases, just doing nothing.

The second step would be to board [the prisons] up. The third step would be to either sell them so that they can be turned into condominiums. The fourth step would be to burn them down.

I don't think it's actually a multi-step process. I think that we've convinced ourselves that it's very complex when it's not. We're doing something that is hurting kids and harming us by making them twice as likely to end up as adult criminals. Just stopping doing it would be a tremendous step.

If there's a drug that has no known benefits, but a lot of harmful side effects, you can't go to the FDA and say, "well we've cut the harmful side effects by 40 percent, so can we keep selling the drug?" There's no other realm in which we would tolerate this level of failure.

AF: Is there anything you would definitely want readers to take away from what you've written?

NB: You asked a couple times the hardest question which is, how can we do this to the kids? I think that the answer is we can do it as long as we don’t know them. We've talked a lot about statistics and studies, but the book is really grounded in stories, and I know it's my own relationships with young people that have made me care about this, and it's my same hope for the book is that that people on some level will on some level get to know the kids, and that once you see them as fully human, it just becomes a lot harder to accept or look away from what we're doing.

Alyssa Figueroa is an associate editor at AlterNet.