10 Things Every Juvenile Prison Should Do

May 22, 2013

Will Harrell, J.D., LL.M. is the Founder and Director of the Justice Collaborative, a consulting firm on criminal and juvenile justice reform initiatives.  He has been a reformer of criminal and juvenile justice systems in 6 states and 5 countries, and currently monitors conditions of confinement in Ohio juvenile prison facilities.

Terry Schuster, J.D. is the Special Assistant to the Federal Court Monitor overseeing conditions in Ohio juvenile prison facilities.  He was previously a Fellow at Juvenile Law Center, a law clerk for the Special Master overseeing conditions in the California juvenile prison system, and a law clerk for the Ombudsman of the Texas Youth Commission.

Kids, mostly older teenagers, who are arrested for criminal behavior in the United States are generally brought to juvenile court.  Juvenile courts were created about a hundred years ago to divert kids away from the adult criminal justice system, keep them out of adult jails and prisons and attempt to intervene in their lives in meaningful ways to prevent them from engaging in criminal behavior as adults.  While most kids who come to juvenile court are supervised and provided with services in the community, a small portion are sent to State-run juvenile correctional facilities.  These facilities are diverse.  Some look like secure boarding schools; others look more like prisons.

We get involved in juvenile facilities when they become unsafe and are put under court supervision (usually following class-action lawsuits or lawsuits brought by the U.S. government).

Thanks to the recession, most states are looking for ways to downsize their juvenile prisons and more cost-effective ways to supervise them in the community.  This is not a new idea.  For years, youth advocates nationwide have been pushing for alternatives to secure lock-ups because of the known negative effects of removing kids from their homes and communities, and the general ineffectiveness of prisons at improving youth behavior.  The recession, though, has piqued the interest of legislators and made downsizing of juvenile prisons appealing for budgetary reasons.

In Ohio, where we currently monitor juvenile prison conditions, the population has dropped from over 2000 incarcerated youth a few years ago to less than 500 today.  This sort of de-carceration has a lot of positive effects.  Families are kept together, youth can stay in school, and they can often get better mental health and case management services in the community.  With effective probation systems, the public is usually just as safe, and the youth is less likely than if he were locked up to commit future crimes.

The shadow effect of this de-carceration is that the juvenile prison systems are left to manage a smaller population, but with higher concentrations of the most violent youth, gang-involved youth and seriously mentally ill youth.  These populations are tough to manage, particularly mixed together.

Most states and counties have decided over the past decade to cut back on community mental health resources – a public policy decision, the results of which we are seeing today.  There are some acute care and long-term placements for youth with high-end mental health needs, but these places often won’t take kids who are violent or who engage in criminal behavior.  By the time these youth make it to the deep end of the juvenile justice system, they have usually been to the other placements multiple times and have exhausted other county resources.  The juvenile prison system–which is a less-than-ideal treatment environment–then becomes a default mental health care system.

What we see when we get involved in oversight of unsafe juvenile prisons are youth with mental illnesses being victimized or manipulated by other youth; youth being punished for behavior related to their mental illness; excessive force and excessive reliance on isolation cells to respond to problem behavior; and clinical staff stretched thin from handling crisis after crisis.

We also see prison systems segregating the most disruptive youth from everyone else, placing them in Special Management housing Units or SMUs.  Unless they have a clear vision and purpose, as well as qualified staff to work with youth on improving their behavior, SMUs often devolve into lockdown units in which youth spend significant lengths of time in solitary confinement cells.  In these environments, where youth feel like caged animals, their behavior becomes even worse, and their mental health deteriorates.

Because of the higher concentration of high-needs youth in juvenile facilities, we also see states rushing to move kids into the adult prison system–or to combine the adult and juvenile prison systems into a single agency–with overwhelmingly bad results.  Kids in the adult system receive fewer educational and treatment services, are more at risk for physical and sexual victimization, and have much higher rates of suicide.

Juvenile prison reform efforts nationally have been quite successful at reducing the incarcerated population.  While some advocate for abolishing juvenile (and adult) prisons altogether, we don’t believe states are headed that direction.  Given this reality, reduced population shouldn’t be the only focus of juvenile prison reform.  States need to take steps to make sure the remaining kids are safe and have a chance at rehabilitation.  Here are 10 things every juvenile prison system should consider to make their facilities safer and improve the prospects for their kids’ success.

1. The absolute best way to reduce violence in juvenile facilities is to provide more and better activities.  Kids should be in school part of the day, and engaged in athletic, recreational, and treatment activities the rest of the day.  If there’s nothing for them to do, gang activity will fill the void.

2. If your system has a Special Management Unit (SMU) to segregate the most disruptive youth from the general population, consider disbanding it.  There are plenty of examples of states that did away with their segregated housing units and didn’t experience an uptick in violence.

3. If your system has an SMU and plans to keep it, don’t let it become a lockdown unit.  Behavior management is more effective when youth spend more time out of their rooms learning and practicing new skills.

4. Limit the number of beds on the SMU.  With youth who present serious chronic behavior problems, you’ll be much more successful in changing that behavior if you work with groups of 6-8 kids, rather than 25-30 kids.

5. The environment can be safe and secure without being overly punitive and prison-like.  The safest housing units create a treatment setting and target violent or disruptive behaviors with individualized treatment plans rather than relying on isolation, restraints and repeated applications of force.

6. For youth whose behaviors don’t improve in response to the treatment plan, create an external review board with clinical and behavioral experts who can bring a new set of eyes to the problem behavior and suggest some new approaches.

7. Create a separate track for youth whose disruptive behavior is related to a mental health disorder.  This population will not do well when mixed with a more sophisticated criminal gang population.

8. Youth with the most acute or serious mental illnesses should have easy access to inpatient psychiatric hospitals and long-term psychiatric residential treatment placements (outside the juvenile prison system).  For youth who cannot progress through the program in a juvenile prison setting due to their mental illness, create an avenue for them to be discharged from the system and diverted to treatment providers in the community.

9. For seriously mentally ill youth who stay in the system, create a segregated intensive mental health housing unit that operates like a community psychiatric placement.  Choose the clinical and security staff carefully and train them to ensure they have the skills to engage with this special population.  Selecting staff in this way may require setting aside provisions of their collective bargaining agreement, but doing so in the interest of the youth is supported by case law.

10. Finally, don’t punish youth for misbehavior that is related to a mental illness.  Create an assessment process that diverts youth away from the formal discipline system if their behavior was related to an underlying mental health disorder, and address the behavior through treatment interventions.  Correctional punishment–particularly placement in an isolation cell–will only make the mental health symptoms worse.

The image accompanying this article is a 2003 photograph by Ingar Krauss from a Russian juvenile prison.