The Risks Juveniles Face: Housing Juveniles in Adult Institutions Is Self-Destructive and Self-Defeating

By Ziedenberg, Jason; Schiraldi, Vincent | Corrections Today, August 1998 | Go to article overview

The Risks Juveniles Face: Housing Juveniles in Adult Institutions Is Self-Destructive and Self-Defeating


Ziedenberg, Jason, Schiraldi, Vincent, Corrections Today


Nearly a century ago, the juvenile justice system was created because children were subjected to unspeakable atrocities in adult jails and returned to society as hardened criminals. As the system developed, it became clear that housing young offenders and adult inmates together was self-destructive and self-defeating.

Despite the lessons of history, Congress stands poised to reunite adults and juveniles in the same prison system. The "Violent and Repeat Juvenile Offender Act" (S-10) calls for housing juveniles with adult inmates, and would force states to transfer large numbers of young offenders to adult prisons in order to be eligible for federal funds. Child advocates, law enforcement officials and criminologists have urged Congress to consider the destructive effects of placing youths in adult jails and prisons - a substantial body of research shows that placing youths in adult institutions accentuates criminal behavior after release.

In a recent full-page advertisement in The Washington Times, sheriffs, district attorneys and legal professionals explained why they think the proposed legislation will make their jobs more difficult: "Lock up a 13-year-old with murderers, rapists and robbers, and guess what he'll want to be when he grows up?" the advertisement read. Even John Dilulio, head of the conservative Council on Crime in America a group that has provided much of the statistical analytical support for the juvenile crime bill - doesn't think locking children up with adults is a good idea. Dilulio wrote in The New York Times, "[M]ost kids who get into serious trouble with the law need adult guidance. And they won't find suitable role models in prison. Jailing youths with adult felons under Spartan conditions will merely produce more street gladiators."

The most disturbing aspect of the new bill is the fear that the thousands of young people slated to be placed in adult prisons and jails are more likely to be raped or assaulted, or to commit suicide. Surveys have documented the higher risk juveniles face when placed in adult institutions, and people who work with youths know the all-too-familiar stories: In Ohio, a 15-year-old girl is sexually assaulted by a deputy jailer after she is placed in an adult jail for a minor infraction; in Kentucky, 30 minutes after a 15-year-old is put in a jail cell following an argument with his mother, the youth hangs himself; in one year, four children being held in Kentucky jails - for offenses ranging from disorderly conduct to status offenses, like running away from home - committed suicide.

While groups as diverse as the American Jail Association and the American Civil Liberties Union have lobbied to keep youths out of the reach of adult inmates, the bills before Congress will result in substantially more children being imprisoned with adults. It is important to revisit the few statistics on how juveniles fare in adult institutions as Congress considers making these dramatic justice system changes.

Too Few Statistics

There is a dearth of data on rape, suicide and assault rates among the 4,000 juveniles who are sentenced to adult prisons, as well as the 65,000 children who pass through the adult jail system every year. Some states lump suicide deaths under the category "unspecified cause," making the problem invisible. Other states and jurisdictions list rape among "inmate assaults" - effectively masking the problem. Academics in this field warn that any statistics on rape are "very conservative at best, since discovery and documentation of this behavior are compromised by the nature of prison conditions, inmate codes and subcultures, and staff attitudes." There also are obvious incentives for prison officials to underreport incidents of rape and suicide because they are administratively embarrassing to the prison system, and could be used as evidence for lawsuits.

Even on the less politically charged measure of the number of "inmate-on-inmate" assaults, it is difficult to formulate a conclusive answer about whether offenders are more likely to be attacked in a juvenile institution or an adult prison. …

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