Youth First, a national campaign dedicated to closing youth prisons, launched Thursday with a call to close 80 of the oldest, largest, and most notorious institutions in 39 states.
Along with a report mapping out these archaic and sprawling facilities—many of them over a century old and housing more than 100 beds—Youth First released the results of a survey conducted this year which suggest that an overwhelming majority of Americans support overhauling the juvenile justice system from one of incarceration toward a spectrum of community-based rehabilitation programs.
The United States locks up an estimated 54,000 youth on any given day in a range of facilities whose names often fail to reflect the harsh realities of life inside them, according to Youth First. Colorado uses the term “youth services center”; Florida claims it houses some juvenile offenders in a “youth academy”; Iowa has a “training school for boys.” Diversity of names notwithstanding, these institutions share many commonalities: They are often geographically isolated, practice solitary confinement, utilize security hardware like barbed-wire fences, employ physical and chemical restraints, and have documented histories of physical and sexual abuse.
In a phone interview with Rewire, Youth First National Field Director Mishi Faruqee said only facilities that met a majority of such criteria were on the interactive map released today. “Almost all the facilities we included had documented reports of sexual abuse, according to a 2013 Bureau of Justice Statistics report on sexual victimization in juvenile facilities,” she explained.
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Maltreatment in youth prisons runs the gamut from excessive use of force by prison staff, to beatings, suffocation, and sexual abuse of residents by both staff and other inmates, a 2015 report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation found. Some states have worse track records than others: Georgia’s youth facilities, for instance, were found to have the highest sexual abuse rates in the nation. In 2011, a resident in Georgia’s Augusta Youth Development Campus beat one of his fellow inmates to death.
That facility is just one of many included in Youth First’s report. Another is the Arkansas Juvenile and Assessment Treatment Center, which is notorious for its mistreatment of youth.
“During my 20 plus years at Arkansas Advocates I have witnessed continuous cycles of news exposes of abuse and mistreatment of youth in our youth prison,” Paul D. Kelly, a senior policy analyst at Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, told Rewire in an email. “These include a series of suicides, physical and sexual abuse, broken bones and other injuries, and the lack of health, mental health, and educational services in this prison. These tragic events occur, the news upsets everyone, they fire the staff and or administrators, change management from public to private entities to run the prison, then it’s quiet for years and everyone forgets about it—and then it happens again. And again. In 2012 the Department of Justice listed our prison among those with the highest rate of sexual victimization … This information was never reported in the state press.”
In 2014, the Arkansas facility saw a 25 percent increase in assaults, fights, and self-harm, according to a local news report. “Again, we asked for this prison to be closed,” Kelly said. “It is still in operation. I must note that in 2011 the Division of Youth Services did reduce its contract with G4S [a for-profit company that operates youth prisons] from 143 beds to 100 beds. It was a small step in the right direction—but not nearly enough.”
In addition to being unsafe, youth prisons cost a lot to maintain: Youth First estimates that most states dedicate the largest chunk of their juvenile justice resources to prisons, amounting to some $5 billion every year. On average, it costs states $100,000 to detain a single juvenile for one year.
On a press call Thursday, Youth First CEO and President Liz Ryan also drew attention to high recidivism rates among juvenile offenders, and highlighted disproportionate rates of incarceration for youth of color compared to their white peers, “even when charged with similar offenses and despite the fact that they engage in similar levels of delinquency.”
States with the highest racial disparities include Utah, where Black youth comprise 24 percent of incarcerated juveniles, despite making up just 2 percent of the state’s overall youth population; Wisconsin, where Black youth account for 58 percent of all incarcerated juveniles compared to 29 percent of white youth, even though only 10 percent of the overall youth population in the state is Black, while an overwhelming 74 percent of Wisconsin’s youth population is white; and New Jersey, where Black kids represent 69 percent of juveniles locked up, even though they account for just 15 percent of the population. In comparison, whites account for 51 percent of the state’s overall youth population, yet account for just 10 percent of its incarcerated juveniles.
Da’Quon Beaver, a community organizer at the Legal Aid Justice Center in Virginia, addressed some of these disparities on Thursday’s call, while also recalling his personal experiences inside youth prisons.
Beaver was just 14 years old when he was charged as an adult and sentenced to 48 years. He spent several years in four facilities across the state, which housed between 280 and 300 residents.
“Anything that you can imagine happening in an adult facility is also taking place in these juvenile prisons: there are fights and riots, threats of sexual abuse, [and] residents with mental illness are not given the treatment they rightly deserved and placed in isolation.”
“But the worst abuse of all,” he said, “is being so far away from our families.”
He recalled one Christmas spent in a facility that was on lockdown due to a riot, meaning residents were denied holiday visits with their families. “I remember like it was yesterday, just crying by myself for hours and hours,” Beaver said. When the lockdown ended and visitation rights were reinstated, Beaver remembers entering the visiting room in a facility of 300 residents, and being one of just six youth to receive a visitor—he said the accumulated costs of travel, missed work, and child care for younger family members make prison visits a luxury that few can afford.
Beaver calls himself a “passionate” advocate for juvenile justice reform, and his efforts are paying off. Thanks in part to pressure from advocacy groups, Virginia is now one of three states whose governors have committed to closing large and outdated prisons. The other two states are Connecticut, under Democratic Gov. Dannel Malloy, and Illinois, under Republic Gov. Bruce Rauner.
Faruqee says such bipartisan support is encouraging, but believes the fight is likely to be a long one. “One of the biggest challenges is that there is a lot of money caught up in the youth prison system, so there are vested interests in seeing that system continue as it is,” she explained. While most of the facilities identified in Youth First’s report are state-run, there are also private entities that profit from juvenile incarceration, she said.
“In Florida, where 100 percent of facilities are privately run, you have a clear profit motive. But there are [also] vested interests in state-run facilities, and concerns about things like the impact of [prison closures] on local communities and fears of job losses,” she added.
Still, with the new poll showing that 54 percent of respondents favor closing youth prisons altogether, with 89 percent supporting the creation of family-centered treatment and rehabilitation plans, the pendulum of public opinion appears to be swinging toward reform.
“Part of what this national campaign is about is building the political will and broad-based political support for closing youth prisons and showing leaders that there is wide support for this initiative,” Faruqee said.