Unprisoning Our Children

Recently, prison systems around the country have announced new protections for children in prison. These reforms resulted from class action lawsuits.

In Illinois, children will now receive the mental health and educational services to which they are entitled and they will be protected from violence and abuse. In New York, children will no longer be held in solitary confinement.

This is good news.

Because of attorneys who fight for the rights of children and right-minded jurisdictions that want to run compliant prisons, imprisoned children in these states will -- for a time -- be protected from unspeakable abuse.

The children who will benefit from these reforms are, more likely than not, behind bars because they committed a non-violent offense. They are disproportionately black or brown and most are poor.

It's not just the lawyers and the prison officials who made these reforms happen. These reforms would have been impossible without the children who spoke out about the abuse they endured while imprisoned. The act of telling the truth about imprisonment -- while you as a child are still in prison, while the people harming you have control over every aspect of your life, while the person you are confiding in gets to drive away from the prison and sleep in his or her own bed -- is an act of almost unimaginable courage.

And yet, children in Illinois and New York were brave enough to share their stories.
These are not the only children who have been forced to be this brave. Children in Mississippi, Louisiana, California, New Mexico and Ohio have all spoken out about the state-sanctioned child abuse they experienced in juvenile justice systems.

These children are in different states and in every region of the country, but their stories are hauntingly similar: rapes, brutal use of pepper spray, beatings, prolonged solitary confinement. Lawsuits were filed over barbaric conditions. Jurisdictions were shamed and pledged to do better. Millions of taxpayer dollars have been -- and will be -- spent trying to make children's prisons safe. But eventually, the lawsuits will go away, the oversight will disappear and reforms will begin to recede. And the cycle of abuse will begin again.

How can I be so sure the cycle will repeat itself? Because for almost a decade, my former colleagues at the Southern Poverty Law Center and I represented hundreds of children imprisoned in Mississippi. There, they experienced what the United States Department of Justice called "the worst abuses the DOJ had seen in 20 years."

These children had been beaten, sexually abused and locked alone in dark rooms for months at a time. And the same Mississippi prison had been the subject of groundbreaking litigation 26 years earlier. The 1977 federal court order in this case was (and still is) taught in juvenile justice law classes around the country. But the order provided no protection for the children imprisoned in the facility in 2003, even though it is still legally binding.

When I last toured the prison in 2012, it bore little resemblance to the dungeon of horrors it was in 2003. Yet, the place still haunts me. It appears now to be "fixed," as children no longer suffer black eyes and broken bones or hours locked in solitary confinement. But what will happen 30 years from now when the litigation my colleagues and I devoted ourselves to has faded from collective memory? Despite reforms, this place remains a prison for children.

And the fact that we have prisons for our children is in and of itself a horror. The only way to end the cycle of scandal and abuse that plagues our country's juvenile justice systems is to end the imprisonment of our children as we now know it.

Those who defend the United States' legacy as the world's leading imprisoner of children claim that only the worst of the worst end up behind bars. But the numbers belie this claim.

Our country's youth prisons are not filled with children who commit violent offenses. In New York, 53 percent of all youth imprisoned were there for a misdemeanor and all of these children behind bars there younger than 16 when they committed their offense. 56 percent of the children imprisoned in Florida were there for misdemeanors or probation violations. A child imprisoned in the U.S. is many times more likely to have possessed marijuana or engaged in petty shoplifting than to have committed a violent act.

These are not children who belong behind bars. And it's not just children who suffer when our youth are needlessly imprisoned. Indeed, renowned juvenile justice expert Paul DeMuro refers to children's prisons as iatrogenic -- a "cure" that makes the problem worse.

Children placed in prisons are far more likely to re-offend than children who are placed in community based interventions, even when controlling for factors like offense and background. The act of imprisonment -- removing a child from her home and community, interrupting her education -- leads to significantly decreased opportunities for the youth.

In short, imprisoning our children serves no good purpose.

Instead, what the juvenile justice system does well is to stand as the most visible, persistent and damning evidence of institutional racism that exists in this country. Youth of color are arrested, charged and imprisoned at rates that far exceed those for white youth who have been alleged to engage in similar conduct. The imprisonment rates for youth of color can only be explained by institutional racism -- not by rates of offending.

Eliminating prisons for our children is no easy task. But smart stakeholders around the country are paving the path to a prison-less future for our children. In Alabama, Mississippi, Illinois and Louisiana law makers overhauled the state statutes that needlessly funneled children into prisons.

Counties across the nation are reforming how they decide which children to detain and are eliminating racial disparities, by using data driven, objective decision making criteria pioneered by the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the W. Haywood Burns Institute. And for the very small numbers of youth who may actually pose a threat to public safety, there is consensus among juvenile justice experts that best practice requires small, homelike facilities that are close to a child's community and have rigorous, external and independent oversight.

Perhaps most importantly, as a result of the work of organizations like Friends and Family of Louisiana's Incarcerated Children, and Justice for Families, systems stakeholders are awakening to the importance of building on the strengths of children, investing in families and engaging them in efforts to help their children make positive life decisions.

Creating a prison-less future for our children clearly requires far more than ending the abuse that is endemic to our nation's prisons. But protecting the children who are currently behind bars is an important first step. The brave children who have recently spoken up and have pushed Illinois and New York to agree to reform brutal prison conditions have done a great service for all of us.

Because we're all complicit in the abuse that happens in children's prisons. It happens, in our names, with our tax dollars and at the direction of the officials we elect.

And now we owe these youth far more than safer prisons. We owe them a justice system that recognizes this simple fact: Prisons are no places for children.

Sheila A. Bedi is a clinical associate law professor at Northwestern University law school and an attorney at the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center. She is a fellow with The OpEd Project's Public Voices Fellowship at Northwestern.