From Child to Captive: Constructing Captivity in a Juvenile Institution

By Bickel, Christopher | Western Criminology Review, April 2010 | Go to article overview

From Child to Captive: Constructing Captivity in a Juvenile Institution


Bickel, Christopher, Western Criminology Review


Abstract: Juvenile detention centers are not simply places that regulate and control the behavior of children accused of crimes. Nor are they places that "rehabilitate" or "fix" children in need. Instead, juvenile detention centers provide the social location in which detained children, who are often working class and of color, are created unequal, and treated accordingly. I argue that inside juvenile detention centers, children are constructed as "captives," as members of a permanent, disreputable category. Focusing on the experiences of juvenile detention guards, I show how guards construct detained youth as pathological and deserving of punitive treatment. As a result, detained youth are ushered into a rising category of exclusion that carries the salience of other categories of difference, like race, class and gender. "Captivity" is a rising marker of inequality, and is the product of an ongoing interactional process that is reproduced, maintained, and legitimated in the everyday interactions between guards and between guards and detained youth.

Keywords: Juvenile Justice; Detention; Detention Guards; Inequality

Someone said life is easy when you're a kid.

Now that I think about it . . . when was I a kid?

My life has been hard.

My mother dead, my brother lost, my father crazy

My life trapped in a cage.

Who was to care for me when I was in trouble.

No one to help

No one to care

-Angel, a 16 year-old captive of the state.

I received this poem in the mail from Angel, a young man I mentored for over six years. Since the age of 12, he has spent most of his teenage years locked up, leaving him angry at the juvenile justice system, which he believes has robbed him of his childhood and "prepared him for the pen."

I spent nearly two years as an ethnographic researcher inside Rosy Meadows, a large juvenile detention center that houses anywhere between 150-200 youth between the ages of 11-18 in the Northwest, United States. In 2005, for the United States as a whole, 354,100 youth cycled through such juvenile detention centers (OJJDP 2008). The more time I spent talking with the incarcerated youth and their state-issued guardians, the more I began to question the conventional research on juvenile justice, which is far too often defined by existing paradigms of rehabilitation and punishment. On the left, progressive criminologists and policy makers decry the draconian shift toward punishment and the subsequent evaporation of funding for rehabilitation programs, leaving a "vulnerable" population "at risk" (Inderbitzen 2006; Krisberg 2005). On the right, conservatives argue that the juvenile justice system is far too lenient on "dangerous" and "predatory" youth and should focus more on punishment and incapacitation (DiIulio 1995). As the debate rages between rehabilitation and punishment, there is another overlooked, and far more insidious, function of the current juvenile justice system: the systematic branding of incarcerated youth as "criminal," leading to the death of childhood and the birth of what I call "captivity."

Given the massive experiment in incarceration over the last thirty years, it is time to think of "captivity" as a rising form of state legitimated inequality, similar to other categorical identities, like race, gender, and class. In this article, I avoid using conventional words like "delinquent," "offender," or "criminal" not only because these terms reduce the humanity of the children to whom they are applied, but also because they are theoretically insufficient; they push researchers to focus solely on the behavior of children and ignore the role institutions play in constructing categories of delinquency (Becker 1963). Instead, I use the concept of "captivity" to highlight the interactional and institutional process through which incarcerated children are created different inside a total institution. The concept of captivity implies interaction because to be a captive, one must be held in that category by some outside force, whether it comes in the form of a guard, a judge, or an entire institution. …

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From Child to Captive: Constructing Captivity in a Juvenile Institution
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