When talking about juvenile incarceration facilities with folks, I hear this argument sometimes, “For a lot of those kids, isn’t their life inside those facilities better than their life on the outside? Aren’t those facilities safer and cleaner than their lives and homes? Aren’t they being fed better, more regularly?” Sure. If you look at it just like that, just black and white like that, in some cases it is true. But in most instances, those improvements come with significant downfalls in terms of architecture, best practices, discipline and rehabilitation. A child may be eating the first balanced meal they’ve had in months, but does it have to come hand in hand with punitive disciplinary measures like isolation and confinement? A child may be sleeping on clean sheets, but does it have to be in an 8×10 windowless cell? I don’t think so.
[superquote]“Removing young people who engage in delinquent behavior from their homes and communities, and incarcerating them in locked facilities is no longer the status quo.”[/superquote]
And big research and reform organizations agree. Last week, the Justice Policy Institute released two new reports on juvenile confinement reform in five states: Connecticut, Louisiana, California, Minnesota and Tennessee. The press release states, “Removing young people who engage in delinquent behavior from their homes and communities, and incarcerating them in locked facilities is no longer the status quo in five states.” These reports are holistic—citing improvements in public safety, reduced rates of confinement, employment of evidence-based and family-focused treatment, improved conditions within facilities, and most importantly improved outcomes for these children—all with no additional cost to taxpayers.
I really like that phrase “improved outcomes for children” it goes beyond “barely improved environments and circumstances” to acknowledge the importance above all of helping these children gain a life beyond the system, beyond poor decisions teenage misbehavior, beyond indigent childhoods and violent neighborhoods.
[superquote]Listening to interviews with kids and staff, you get the feeling that they are all living in fear. Half of the students expect to die young.[/superquote]
Which brings me to Chicago. This week and last, National Public Radio’s This American Life broadcast two very important shows focusing entirely on Harper High School in the Englewood neighborhood on Chicago’s southside [Listen to Part 1 HERE, and Part 2 HERE]. Last year, 29 current and recent students of Harper High were shot. Eight died. According to TAL reporters, who spent five months at the school, almost all students at Harper belong to one of the fifteen gangs in the neighborhood. Now, forget about what you think you know about gangs because the system of affiliation for the gangs at Harper High is completely different. A kid is assigned to a gang based on where he or she lives. You don’t join, you aren’t recruited, and you don’t have a choice. Police officer Aaron Washingon, who spends seven hours a day at Harper, told reporters, “If you live here, you’re part of them. You live on that block, or you live in that area, you’re one of them. They don’t have a choice.” Listening to interviews with kids and staff, you get the feeling that they are all living in fear. Half of the students expect to die young.
In the broadcast the reporter Alex Kotlowitz talks to one Harper student who has seen countless shootings and watched two friends die in front of him. The young man, Thomas, tells Kotlowitz, “he knows something violent is going to happen again, it could be random, he says, bullets fly all the time, one could come through the living room window and hit his grandma, or a stray bullet could hit [his teacher] when she’s on the block. ‘What happens, happens,’ he often says.” The trauma this young person has seen is indescribable and incomprehensible for most people. Thomas sees the school counselor near daily.
[superquote]But incarceration doesn’t offer the rehabilitation or skill-building or educational opportunities to excel beyond indigent circumstances.[/superquote]
So sure, you could argue that it would be physically safer for this young man to be inside a detention facility where he isn’t at risk of being shot. But two things: 1) incarceration doesn’t offer the rehabilitation or skill-building or educational opportunities that this young man might really want or need to excel beyond his circumstances and 2) If he did get in trouble, research demonstrates that children do better in community programs where they can be close to their family and sleep at home—not the punitive, albeit clean, campuses of juvenile incarceration facilities. Even in the worst of cases, in the worst of neighborhoods, these are not places for kids who pose no public threat. Juvenile detention and commitment facilities are not shelters, not places of refuge, not stand-ins for family or home. The reach of the system must have limits.
But I believe that pictures speak louder than words so let’s look at some of the facilities in Chicago, Illinois, where Richard Ross photographed in 2009.
In most cases, people look at the photographs above and other photographs in Juvenile-in-Justice and come to the consensus that these places are No Places For Kids (as the title of a 2011 Annie E. Casey Foundation report suggests). Other people, and mind you significantly less, examine images of the facilities holding these children and decide that life inside the system is an improvement from life before. Does that mean that they don’t deserve better? Does that mean that kids from safe neighborhoods, privilege, and good schools deserve to be incarcerated in better places than those from low-income, violence plagued neighborhoods– like the students at Harper High School? I don’t think so.