As imprisonment goes, many youth prisons across the country are carbon copies of adult facilities: replete with barbed-wire fencing, steel doors, belly chains, leg irons, and strict rules.
If an incarcerated youth is believed to have committed a violation, it’s not uncommon for them to be hog-tied or shoved to the ground and their faces intentionally dragged along a rug. In Miami, one facility was operating a real-life “Fight Club,” in which guards instigated brawls. In one study, researchers uncovered allegations of widespread sexual abuse, with 1 in 10 youth prisoners nationwide reporting being sexually abused.
Operating these prisons comes at an exorbitant cost of $5 billion per year, which opponents of the system deem an outrageous sum, considering the system’s documented failures in rehabilitating people ensnared at such a young age in America’s justice system. Nationwide, the recidivism rate among incarcerated youth is a staggering 75 percent.
“This ill-conceived and outmoded approach is a failure, with high costs and recidivism rates and institutional conditions that are often appalling,” researchers from the Harvard Kennedy School and other organizations wrote in a 2016 report calling for an end to youth prisons.
Meanwhile, the United States has the unenviable distinction of being the world’s largest prison state. Although. accounting for only 4.4 percent of the world’s population, the United States comprises 22 percent of the globe’s prison population. If nothing else, the country is prolific when it comes to jailing its own citizens. Not even children can escape the criminal justice system’s vast and disparate dragnet. Upwards of 50,000 young people are imprisoned daily in the United States, the far majority of them black youth. Given the rate of incarceration among adults, it’s not surprising then that the percentage of young people locked away in juvenile detention facilities here is the highest among all industrialized nations, according to Human Rights Watch.
Advocates for juvenile detention reform note that even though the number of incarcerated youth has dramatically decreased since the turn of the century, the proportion of imprisoned girls is on the rise, and black youth nationally are five times more likely to be imprisoned than their white counterparts. In some states, the proportion of jailed black boys is much higher, particularly in New Jersey. The state’s oldest facility, the New Jersey Training School for Boys, opened its doors in 1867—two years after its last slaves were freed.
James Williams, a juvenile justice field organizer with the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice (NJISJ), is a vocal critic of the youth prison model, especially the New Jersey Training School for Boys, also referred to as Jamesburg. His group in 2017 led a movement called “150 Years is Enough” to put pressure on the state to shutter it and its neighboring female facility. Before leaving office in January, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie announced that the state would permanently close the ancient prison.
Williams and other reformists are calling for a complete overhaul of the current system, and propose a more holistic approach to rehabilitating troubled youth.
“New Jersey is currently operating at a roughly 70 percent recidivism rate, so we understand that the system does not work,” Williams told News Beat podcast. “And Jamesburg represents a close to two-century-old experiment that has failed, not only children, but more importantly, children of color, within this state. So for 150 years we have creatively and innovatively found ways to spend money on young people of color in a system that they knew was not going to work.”
When juvenile facilities first opened in the mid-19th century, they were often referred to as “reform schools,” which were created as a “humane response” to deal with misbehaving urban youth and immigrants, according to the Harvard Kennedy School report.
“That building represents 150 years of children, of souls and spirits that went in one way and left another.”
– James Williams, New Jersey Institute for Social Justice
Such euphemistic names for these aging facilities continue to be used today, says Mishi Faruqee, national field director at Youth First, which advocates for juvenile detention reform.
“You’ll hear them being referred to as youth development centers,” she said. “Sometimes, they’re called schools, training schools, industrial homes. The model, the youth prison model, goes back 150 years… We say the youth prison model is obsolete.”
One of the countless kids who’ve been inside these facilities as an inmate has been trying to spark change ever since he’s been out.
Hernan Carvente, also of Youth First, pleaded guilty in 2008 to attempted murder. At 16, he was sentenced to two-to-six years in youth prison. After being held in pre-trial detention at the since-shuttered Spofford Juvenile Detention Facility in New York City, which had been dubbed “Baby Rikers,” Carvente was transferred to an upstate youth prison called Brookwood Secure Center, 125 miles away from his parents and newborn daughter.
Carvente, now 25, has turned his life around. He speaks to young people who were once like him. Although he’s come out the other end, his success story belies the traumatic experience of being imprisoned at such a young age and how society all but leaves young boys and girls to survive on their own upon release. Many don’t stay free for very long.
Carvente was 125 miles away from home when he walked out of Brookwood. He was handed $50 in cash and received a pat on the back and a ride to the train station.
“That was it,” he said.
16 and Locked Up
Carvente, the son of Mexican immigrants, does not make excuses for his actions. He freely admits to the crime he committed. But he also considers himself the product of a “failed criminal justice system and the failed immigration system.” Domestic incidents at home also took a toll. Carvente began drinking alcohol at 8 years old, because he thought that’d stop his father from doing the same.
“My young mind was like, ‘If I drink it, he can’t drink it,’” he said.
At 13, Carvente had already joined a gang. All these traumatic experiences led him down a path that ended with him behind bars. Tragically, if it were not for those travails, Carvente would not be in the position he finds himself in now, as an inspiration for countless youth.
A national youth partnership strategist, he currently manages the Youth First Youth Leaders Network, with a goal of giving young leaders the tools they need to confront youth incarceration.
“This ill-conceived and outmoded approach is a failure, with high costs and recidivism rates and institutional conditions that are often appalling.”
– Harvard Kennedy School report
Carvente knows more than most the importance of having a mentor. He latched on to an educator at Brookwood, who helped him understand that if he was going to get straight and have a second chance at life, he needed to do it for himself, not just his family.
“I quit his program three times before I got the picture and finally started believing that I can be a leader,” Carvente said.
That Carvente not only changed his life around, but found a way to make an impact in his community, is testament to his resiliency. After leaving Brookwood, he hopped on a train to New York’s Penn Station, the beating heart of Manhattan’s transportation network. The bustling station, with wide-eyed tourists craning their necks amid the cacophony of street music, rumblings from within its bowels, and stampedes of suburbanites anxious to get home, can be stressful for even the most well-traveled visitor. For Carvente, who was confined to a prison with 15 other teens, and was virtually unable to make his own choices, the visit was like being transported into a whole new world, one where his felony record would later prove to be an obstacle to employment and access to higher education. This was despite the 57 college credits he earned while at Brookwood.
“I’m part of that category that most people would say should’ve still been in the system, but however, at this point, I’ve been out five years, nine months,” Carvente said, proudly. “I have a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice. I’ve done work for the past five and a half years, given back to the community, and the only way I was able to do that was because I didn’t spend the rest of my life in prison.”
“When we think about youth prisons, we know that it doesn’t work, because so many of our young people end up going back, anyway,” he added. “And if they don’t go back, then they end up in the adult system after victimizing once again. And so at what point do we say ‘enough is enough’? At what point do we say we need healing, not punishment? At what point do we say that we need to support young people, not just set them up for failure?”
Youth First has for years pushed for juvenile detention reform. Establishing true alternatives to youth incarceration has proved to be difficult at times, but change is happening.
Faruqee, the national field director at Youth First Initiative, points to New York as one of the states leading the nation in reforming what she considers to be a broken system. The state has closed more than 20 youth prisons since 2007, while also investing in community alternatives. Among the programs introduced is the “Close to Home” initiative, which was adopted in 2012. Instead of busing young people to far-away facilities, they remain in the custody of New York City Administration for Children’s Services (ACS).
“It just looks like any other building on the block,” Faruqee said, recalling her visit to one such ACS facility in the Bay Ridge neighborhood of Brooklyn, a converted Catholic convent. “You don’t know that it’s a residential facility, and the staff really are trained to work closely with young people, to mentor them. And it’s a very different culture than the upstate facilities that young people used to be sent to.”
Youth First currently partners with five states, all of which have taken steps to eliminate prisons in favor of a community-based approach. One of those, Kansas, last year closed one of its large youth prisons and passed legislation intended to reduce the number of people who are sent into the system, Faruqee said.
Youth First is also on the ground in Virginia, which has closed aging youth prisons but proposed replacing them with modern facilities. Something similar is unfolding in Wisconsin, where the state legislature voted to close notorious youth prisons Lincoln Hills School for Boys and Copper Lake School for Girls by 2021 and convert them into adult prisons. The legislation also calls for the building of at least one youth prison to house juveniles who commit serious offenses. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker signed the bill into law 10 days after the state agreed to pay nearly $19 million to a former Copper Lake inmate after a failed suicide attempt left her brain-damaged.
Advocacy groups in New Jersey scored a major victory in January, when outgoing Gov. Chris Christie announced the closure of New Jersey Training School for Boys and Female Secure Care and Intake Facility, both of which opened during the Civil War.
Williams, of New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, which led the campaign to close the prisons, considered the shuttering of the pair of facilities as a “victory,” but said more work needs to be done to create lasting change.
“Our goal is to transform the system,” Williams said. “Just closing the facilities does not get us where we need to be. Our focus is to transform the system, [make] progress with the current administration on closure, and develop and find creative and innovative ways to actually bring about therapy, counseling and rehabilitation to young people in the state of New Jersey.”
The current system has been a massive failure, Williams argues, adding that the state’s recidivism rate is at 70 percent. Not only that, the state’s black residents are 30 times more likely to be imprisoned than their white counterparts.
Williams is proposing a more holistic approach, such as “wrap around” services that would include counseling, rehabilitation, recreation, education and access to faith-based groups.
“We found that all of these type of social resources yield the type of outcomes that we’re looking for, that put positive characteristic traits into these young people,” Williams said.
The New Jersey Training School for Boys may be closing, but its legacy will live on in the thousands of youngsters who were imprisoned there for a century and a half, Williams said.
“That building represents 150 years of children, of souls and spirits that went in one way and left another,” Williams said. “The echoes, and the screams, and the tears, and the hurt, and pain that are just forever embedded in those walls, can’t be erased. Each child that goes in there takes on a piece of that hurt. Each child that goes in there carries with them the legacy of those that came before them.
“And when they leave that particular facility, and they go back to those communities, they take that with them. They take that hurt, they take that pain, they take that sense of hopelessness with them, because these buildings are not designed to heal, they’re designed to break their spirits. They’re deplorable in the sense that these young people, they don’t come out better than when they came in.”
[Editor’s Note: The following is an episode transcript. On the recommendation of HEARD, an all-volunteer organization that advocates for disabled people inside the criminal justice system, we’re releasing a special transcript for those who are hard of hearing.]
FACES: Hey everybody, this is Manny Faces, host and producer of News Beat, where we blend journalism and music to examine some of the most important social justice and civil liberties issues of our time. Welcome.
Now as always, News Beat is brought to you by Morey Creative Studios, an inbound marketing, sales enablement and client retention Platinum HubSpot Partner agency. Learn about all the amazing things they can do for you and your company at MoreyCreative[dot]com.
Alright let’s get right into it. Youth prisons. As the name states—literally, prison for children. There are tens of thousands of kids incarcerated across the United States within these facilities, which are often insanely outdated, antiquated, and dilapidated former military prisons dating back to the Civil War.
Conditions inside mirror those of adult prisons. There’s rampant violence and abuse, both physical and psychological, solitary confinement, shackles—I mean, kids are even hog-tied by guards in some of these hell-holes.
And just as with the United States’ adult prison population, it’s African American children and kids of color who are locked up at a grossly disproportionate rate than whites.
Now, the obvious difference here is that these are, again, Chil-dren, Teen-agers, Youth. Their minds are still developing, still forming—literally still forging the very neurological connections, pathways and processes responsible for the rational thought and sound judgement that will mold and guide their behaviors and beliefs for the rest of their lives.
In fact, research states that the centers of the brain responsible for good judgement and rational thought aren’t even fully developed until at least the age of 25, or later.
So physically, psychologically and physiologically, they are just not the same as an adult, and consequently, they act on emotions rather than reason. They live in the moment rather than weighing long-term consequences. They react on impulse rather than logic.
So someone please tell me how it makes sense to treat them—to punish them—as if they were adults.
It doesn’t, and simply locking kids up in a juvenile detention facility isn’t only ineffective—the sky-high recidivism rates prove this—but often dooms them for life, before theirs has really even had a chance to start.
This critical mid-stop along the horrific school-to-prison pipeline is a vastly underreported issue long overdue for sunlight and action, that has such lasting consequences, and it’s so critical for people to understand.
So to break it all down, we spoke with: Mishi Faruqee, the National Field Director of the nonprofit Youth First Initiative; Hernan Carvente, Youth First Initiative’s National Youth Partnership Strategist; and James Williams, Juvenile Justice Field Organizer at New Jersey Institute for Social Justice.
Our very special musical guest this episode, the incredible Napoleon Da Legend.
Here we go. This is “Youth Prisons: Juvenile Detention’s Racial Disparity, Rampant Violence & Lasting Damage.”
— CHAPTER 1 —
MISHI FARUQEE, YOUTH FIRST INITIATIVE
FARUQEE: On any given day, there’s about 50,000 young people incarcerated in the United States in juvenile facilities. So those are either pre-trial detention centers or youth prisons. Race plays a really critical role in youth incarceration. We believe that there’s basically two systems of justice in this country: There’s one system of justice for white, middle-class, upper-middle class youth, and there’s another system of justice for youth of color. And so we’ve seen, in every state that young people of color are disproportionately incarcerated in youth prisons, and one of the troubling trends is that as youth incarceration has decreased the disproportionality is actually increased. The proportion of young people of color who are now incarcerated has gone up as we’ve seen the numbers of youth incarcerated go down.
FARUQEE: The model, the youth prison model, goes back over 150 years. These facilities, it’s like a very outdated model. We say the youth prison model is obsolete. This model of taking young people away from their families, away from their communities and sending to places often eight, 10 hours away, it’s very difficult for family members to stay in contact with their children when they’re incarcerated. A lot of these youth prisons really are mirror images of adult prisons. And this is particularly true of facilities that were renovated in the ‘80s and the ‘90s during this idea of the ‘superpredator.’ A lot of these prisons have become microcosms of adult prisons. They have all of the features that you see in adult prisons: the hardware, the barbed wire fences, the steel doors, all the correctional practices you see in adult prisons…young people will often come into these facilities in leg irons and shackles, they’ll be strip-searched, they’ll have to wear jumpsuits. The facilities often use things like pepper spray to suppress young people or they’ll put them in solitary confinement. We’ve seen facilities use things like restraint chairs. There’s been incidents of staff actually hog-tying children. So you see these very barbaric practices on children and practices that if any parent did this to a child in their home they would be charged and convicted of child abuse, whereas the state is allowed to carry out these practices against young people.
FARUQEE: Adolescence really is the most critical time in a person’s development. That’s a time when you’re really growing and developing and figuring out who you are. Things that happened to a young person while they’re incarcerated can have ramifications for the rest of their lives in terms of who they’ll be. And there’s research that shows solitary confinement has negative consequences for anybody, but particularly for adolescents. And time is so different for an adolescent. If you lock up a young person in a cell for 23 hours a day where they have no contact with anyone else, and usually these cells are very small rooms, just doing that for a matter of hours can have negative consequences, but we see some places young people are locked in cells for months. In some cases, the case of Kalief Browder who was 16 and was in solitary confinement for two years out of three years he was incarcerated, that kind of damage that we’re doing to young people when they put them in these kinds of situations, it’s almost impossible to overstate the damage and the trauma that happens as a result.
JAMES WILLIAMS – NEW JERSEY INSTITUTE FOR SOCIAL JUSTICE
WILLIAMS: When we think about what’s causing the school-to-prison pipeline, you have some young people that have learning disabilities, that have behavioral disorders that aren’t being properly identified. When you have a school that has a lack of resources and the only available constant resource is that school resource officer, which is tied into a law enforcement component, teachers utilize that because in cases that’s the only person that’s available. That’s the individual that they know can actually bring about some level of resolution to the issue that they’re having in the classroom. As they work with these young people, the issues aren’t properly identified and ultimately they’re funneled into the youth justice system.
WILLIAMS: The 13th amendment abolished slavery except for those that are convicted of a crime, so they are subject to what that amendment identifies as servitude. So when you look at New Jersey’s disproportionate rates of incarceration from blacks to whites, we lead the nation at 30 to 1. So when we identify that with the issue of race, we can see that no longer do we have the plantations, no longer do we have the overt racism that we saw at the early part of our country’s founding. Now we have mass incarceration. So the system is working exactly how it’s designed to work. All across the nation you see that people of color drastically make up the largest proportion of those that are incarcerated in our prisons. Mass incarceration is that new form of slavery. This is exactly, unfortunately, what our nation wanted it to be.
— CHAPTER 1 (END) —
FIRST MUSICAL VERSE – NAPOLEON DA LEGEND
50,000 incarcerated youngsters in Jails waiting
Dreams faded taking plea bargains dreaming of being reinstated
It’s black and white 30 to 1 black to whites in Jersey
The beast got an appetite that’s right the systems thirsty
Racially we get profiled patiently waiting for a trial
Public defenders and no lawyers we probably be waiting for a while
Kalief browder or Malik’s daughter to bail out you need deep pockets
This ain’t gossip this real life this prison system ain’t built right
It’s real bad there no rehab they get out then they relapse
For trey bag they get beat bad big court case they can’t beat that
What’s the feedback they gotta eat that
While the mayor lays with his feet back
Feet up we want justice no apologies we don’t need that
— CHAPTER 2 —
HERNAN CARVENTE MARTINEZ – YOUTH FIRST INITIATIVE
CARVENTE MARTINEZ: The first time I walked into a juvenile detention center was in June of 2008. I had gotten arrested for the crime of attempted murder. I stepped foot in Spofford Juvenile Detention Center, which is no longer open in New York City. It was a facility that was not only known for extreme acts of violence in the facility, both from youth and staff, but it was just in deplorable conditions. It was really old, and people used to call it the baby Rikers because it was just so bad in there.
CARVENTE MARTINEZ: After being sentenced in October of 2008, I was sent to Brookwood Secure, another detention center, which is 2 ½ hours away from New York City. It is the largest of four now maximum security facilities for juveniles, and essentially houses around 200-plus young people. I was sent there after having been sentenced to 2-6 years, which is what I plead out guilty too.
CARVENTE MARTINEZ: Really there was no sort-of ability to have your own decisions in that space and sort-of similar to what I witnessed in juvenile detention was that staff…some of them cared, and some of them didn’t. Some of them very explicitly one time said to me, ‘I’m just here for my paycheck, kid. And you happen to be my paycheck. So as long as you do what you need to do, I don’t need to put hands on you.’ And that was sort-of the standard, right.
CARVENTE MARTINEZ: I saw a number of things when I was incarcerated from staff. And I want to be very clear that it happened on both sides: from staff and my own peers. I witnessed some of my peers have their faces dragged on a rug on the ground, and if you’ve ever actually dragged your skin on a rug you would know that rug burns hurt — hurt really bad. Some of my peers would have rug burns after restraints. Others would be restrained so hard they would have broken arms, broken legs, depending on how hard they fell, and they’d end up in the hospital. But similarly sometimes staff would not expect some of my peers to be as strong, and they themselves would get hurt in the process because my peers would fight back.
FARUQEE: There’s been documented cases of abuse in almost every youth prison system around the country. We’re working right now in five states. One of those states is Wisconsin and the Lincoln Hills Youth Prison, which is the largest youth prison in the country, there’s been many, many documented cases of abuse at Lincoln Hills. There was one case where a Correctional Officer in the facility actually slammed a steel door on a young person’s foot and his foot was so badly injured that he had to have his toes amputated. There was another case… a girl at the Copper Lake Youth Prison, which is on the same campus as Lincoln Hills in Wisconsin, tried to commit suicide.
FARUQEE: Staff actually tried to help her commit suicide. The state of Wisconsin just made a settlement with her family to pay $19 million in that settlement. She suffered such extreme brain damage that she is gonna need ongoing medical care for the rest of her life. Some young people describe living in facilities — in Florida there was a case, it was called Fight Club, cause staff would actually set up fights between the young people in the facility and sort of wager which young person was gonna win the fight.
FARUQEE: Some people describe youth prisons as gladiator schools. There’s just really entrenched culture of violence and harm that happens in these facilities.
— CHAPTER 2 (END) —
SECOND MUSICAL VERSE – NAPOLEON DA LEGEND
It’s menacing some of them innocent sitting in prison thinking they primitive
Brown and the black men inna tenements limited image of criminals
Plummeting coming na terms with the government under the guise of a cover-up
Gunning us running us up in a system designed to be evil the devil oppressing us
Accusing the kids and abusing the kids
Turning around with excuses again
Propaganda good for the gander
Wanna be treated like humans again
Correctional officers companies profiting
Sitting in offices and getting them dollars
the youth is deprived and the truth is a lie
Stuck in a place where it’s hard survive
Jails in America facts is empirical and it’s embarrassing we can do better
that is just terrible checking our character it’s about time that we get it together
Call up ya senators and representatives call up ya councilmen call up the president
Dead all prejudice dead all racism these are the youth they ain’t no predators
— CHAPTER 3 —
CARVENTE MARTINEZ : I don’t think the juvenile justice system at this point is set up to help young people prepare for when they’re released. Just from my own personal experience of having been released and the amount of challenges that I experienced. But also just from being in youth prisons all over the country, this is an issue that every young person that I’ve come across experienced, and many of whom, even now, I remain connected to and some of whom still call me from facilities and tell me how the system failed them in some way. You can’t really help a young person in an environment that again just perpetuates these different stereotypes and cycles of violence and ultimately that continue to tell young people over and over that you are the worst thing that you’ve ever done and that we’re not going to support you or help you because you are that.
WILLIAMS: They don’t work. They just don’t work. Especially as it pertains to youth, especially as it pertains to children. The human brain doesn’t finish fully forming until 25 years of age, so we’re pretty much dismantling these children’s opportunities for promise, these children’s opportunities for progress in life at a very, very early age. We recognize that some of the things that these young people have committed on paper can seem egregious, they can seem heinous. They’re coming from neighborhoods and communities that are completely devoid of resources, they’re completely devoid of opportunities. So when we look at these young people we’re seeing a manifestation of the communities that they come from. They need help, they don’t need incarceration. They don’t need to be put locked away and asked five to 10 years later to return into society a better person now than you were then. We find that the system doesn’t work, in a sense of rehabilitation. Is it working in terms of mass incarceration? Yes. My goal, my statement to anybody would be to look at the racial disparity rates, look at that 30 to 1, look at the cost per youth here in the state of New Jersey. The JJC just increased that number to almost $280,000 per year to incarcerate youth.
FARUQEE: Every state that uses youth prisons has very, very high recidivism rates. The vast majority of them — nationally the number is 75%, young people when they’re released end up coming back into the system.
FARUQEE: We believe the youth prison model cannot be rehabilitated. It’s beyond redemption. We feel that rather than try to improve the conditions of confinement in these prisons that we need to close them and create a new model of youth justice. That new model would really focus on community-based programming. Keeping young people with their families, with their communities. If those families need support that’s where those resources should go.
WILLIAMS: One of the key things we’re working on to combat the recidivism rate, to not only work on an intervention and a re-entry but also a preventative level is we transformed it from just not a wrap around model to a community-based system of care, but now we’re focused on identifying it as an ecosystem of care. What we would like to have, communities that are in need of resources have those resources, and have them in an abundance. Where you can have a designated building, a designated building entity, that would be surrounded by therapy, that would be surrounded by counseling, that would be surrounded by rehabilitative service, that would be surrounded by recreational activities, that would be surrounded by faith-based groups, educational facilities. So we found that all of these type of social resources yield the type of outcomes that we’re looking for, that put positive characteristic traits into these young people.
— CHAPTER 3 (END) —
THIRD MUSICAL VERSE – NAPOLEON DA LEGEND
Tear it apart the youth are bearing the cost devil and god
Facing the odds the man is pulling the strings like the Wizard of Oz
We coming together and getting involved
Doing our part families get broken apart destroying the soul and the heart
Of the country we live in we dealing with Youth and not numbers it’s making us numb
Rumors and stereotypes and the image they painting is making us dumb
Make us dumb
We can do better than that when we deal the young
Cause after years of the pain it’s really sad what they really become
Break down and reform the system change up juvenile detention
Let’s take it back to basics no need for wild inventions
Community based not putting the youth in a cage
We are the youth that we raise
what’s you gonna be doing today?
— END OF EPISODE —