Happy Christmas! Why Do We Lock Up So Many of Our Children?

youth in prison infographic-1
Youth First

Fifty thousand.

On any given day, that's roughly the number of children locked up in youth prisons or other out of home confinement throughout the US.

We might call them training schools, youth development centers, juvenile correctional facilities, or some other euphemism, but these vague or pleasant names obscure the fact that these facilities are prisons and echo some of the most abusive elements of adult incarceration: solitary confinement, physical and sexual abuse, physical and chemical restraints, and widening margins of racial disparity.

These conditions are miserable year-round. But being locked up in a horrific environment and kept away from home over the holiday season compounds the trauma of being separated from loved ones during a time of togetherness, reflection and good cheer.

But far too many of the nearly 50,000 youth won't get even a semblance of the comfort of family because of another glaring flaw of the juvenile justice system: many youth prisons are located in remote areas, isolated from the communities and families from which the kids come from.

Instead, the holidays will be a continuation of the handcuffs, locked rooms, razor wire fences, pepper spray and solitary confinement.

Youth prisons are designed to exclude families: by limiting contact, excluding parents from decision-making about what youth prison their child is sent to, and preventing them from weighing in on what programming or treatment their child accesses.

Worse yet, the parents are limited from providing any other insight that could distinguish their child from being just another number.

Many rules discourage family participation. It is common for visits to be limited to just a few minutes a week, often with physical contact prohibited. And in some cases, just getting there to visit is nearly impossible as some parents do not have transportation – and many states to not provide it.

How can we expect families to maintain meaningful relationships with their children without the opportunity to visit?

Youth in correctional facilities were twice as likely to have a low rate of family contact compared to youth in other placements. Youth surveyed believed this was because of inconvenient visiting hours, distance of their family from the facility, lack of transportation, and resource constraints.

Almost no youth said it was because the youth didn't want to talk or visit with their family or that their family didn't want to talk or visit them.

The damage is real: as Savanna from Columbus, Ohio put it, "I spent my whole childhood in there… I definitely felt sad about missing a lot of school, games, being able to create memories for my mom, my family." As another youth in Virginia said, "We fear being forgotten, being gone for too long."

Boy prisoners exercising in a courtyard at Tothill Fields Prison, London, circa 1845. From 'London Labour And The London Poor', by Henry Mathew, published 1849. What has changed in the last 168 years? Hulton Archive/Getty

Our system as it stands serves to foster despair instead of hope and healing. It should be beyond obvious that such a setup is counterproductive. Families are in the best position to know what their child needs, and the research bears this out.

Studies show that it is family involvement – not incarceration – that more effectively rehabilitates young people and ultimately reduces recidivism.
We don't have to continue setting our youth up for repeated failures, keeping them in a cycle of incarceration that only grows more likely to continue into adulthood.

A vision exists for a better system. It is evident that families want to maintain family connections with incarcerated youth and be involved in decisions around their care and treatment. Incarcerated youth want this too.

A Justice 4 Families report reflected families' concerns about the barriers to staying connected with their children while incarcerated, their limited role in decision making about the care and treatment of their children, and the negative impacts of being locked up.

And, the public wants to see families stick together, too. In a national poll released last year, nearly 90 percent of Americans want treatment and rehabilitation plans to include a real role for youth's families.

This bleak landscape is changing. There is a national movement underway–led by directly impacted youth, their families and communities - to close youth prisons and replace them with more effective, treatments that hold young people accountable while keeping them with their families, communities, mentors and services that can actually provide the help and support they need to get their lives on track.

We all need a little comfort around the holiday season. For youth locked up far from home, relief can't come soon enough. Liz Ryan is President and CEO of Youth First.