Award-winning journalist and advocate Nell Bernstein's "Burning Down the House: The End of Juvenile Prison" is a critical look at the juvenile justice system. Center Director Julie Drizin recently interviewed Bernstein on her latest work. Book cover photo by Richard Ross.
Julie: This is your second book exploring the impact of the criminal justice system. How did you get interested in the world of juvenile justice?
Nell: You know, in some ways it was by chance. I think I sort of encountered it at an age when we’re particularly formed by the people around us and our relationships. I almost by chance worked at a runaway shelter in college and that and a complete degree got me got me a $6-an-hour job at a group home when I graduated...It was a place that had a padlock on the refrigerator and I really did not take to exercising power over people and was there maybe a year. After that I went on to edit a youth newspaper for about 10 years in the 90s and we kind of made a point of having an open door to every kind of kid. That combined with the fact that it was the 90s in America meant that one thing that I was dealing with pretty regularly was my staff getting arrested and going with them to court and if that didn’t work, visiting them in juvenile hall or writing them if they wound up in state facilities. I think because I saw who these kids were before that engagement with the system, I saw how profoundly it changed them and well, rarely-to-never for the better. And that’s what drew me in.
Julie: Your book dissects and skewers every aspect of the juvenile justice system, but as I was reading one very simple thought kept coming up for me and that was children. We can call them teenagers, minors, juveniles, but the young people who are getting locked up and separated from their troubled families are still kids…The juvenile justice system was supposed to be different from other kinds of incarceration because it was dealing with children…How did the fact that we are talking about children get lost along the way?
Nell: I appreciate that you pointed it out because I used that word quite deliberately in order not to use distancing words like juveniles….I mean do you call your children juveniles? How did we get to that point? I think that the answer to that is in great part, racial. And I think that has always been the case. You mentioned the early days of the juvenile system when it was intended to rehabilitate, but when I read more about the history, I learned that although that was the philosophy behind the system, the reality of the institutions, of a lot of the locked institutions was always about what I call “other people’s children”.
Obviously, I’m not the first to use that phrase, but in the beginning, in the 1800s in the Houses of Refuge which were the first institutions specifically for children. Those were used mainly to deal with the children of Irish and German immigrants. So there really never was a time when the rhetoric matched the reality and the reality inside even those early institutions was quite dark. They had some pretty imaginative abuses, things like the ducking stool and kids sent out into, well bound out to work, whatever you want to call that. So there really never was a time when it was in touch with its motives.
Julie: We know what the adult perspective is here. That young people are supposed to take responsibility for their choices and that their mistakes have consequences. Can you share the child’s perspective of their experience with the system? What’s it like inside most of these facilities?
Nell: That’s a really important distinction because what I saw and what I heard didn’t really match. In most cases I was given an official tour and I was also much more likely to be given permission to go inside the better institutions, but the one place that really impressed me was Red Wing in Minnesota for a lot of reasons, but they were the only place where the warden kind of just called two kids as they were walking by and had them show me around without supervision--everywhere else I was supervised. But from what the kids told me, it’s this odd combination of fear (the sense that something could happen and often does) and boredom, which was the part I hadn’t thought about.
You do feel the lethargy like when you walk into the day room. For some reason they all have these tiny plastic chairs and in the boy’s institutions you’ll see these large frames kind of draped over a backwards chair and kids watching the Discovery Channel. For some reason they watch a lot of nature shows. It’s so different. If you walk into a high school or our office, anywhere that young people congregate, your house, there’s this tremendous energy and the prisons, they do a really good job of suppressing that energy. You get the sense that, well with both of the young men we talked about being hungry. They get kind of enough calories to live, but during the stretch between dinner at five and breakfast at 7, you almost get the sense that they were slowing their metabolisms down to get through this winter that they were experiencing.
The other word I use besides child, quite deliberately is prison. They’re never, ever called prisons. They’re called "academies" or "boys ranches" or "schools." The most clinical word that you hear is facility. But if you’re a kid going into one of these places, the first thing that you see is razor wire and there’s the metal gates and a tiny locked room, which you’re often not supposed to call a cell. There’s a tremendous amount of euphemism used to buffer the fact that these really are prisons, but I think the fact they are is the second part of the answer to how do we not get that these are children. Because you dress a 10-year-old in a jumpsuit, that’s hard because it’s drooping off of him and it’s pretty clear that he’s a kid. You put a 15-year-old in a jumpsuit and you see a prisoner. So I think that all of the things that are done inside of the prisons to erode their individuality also help us to not be aware of their essential child-ness.
Julie: Your book profiles many young people who have been incarcerated. What impact does incarceration have on young people – their sense of self and adults, the shape of the future.
Nell: That one is the heartbreak. Because if kids suffered and then came out in better shape to face life that would be one thing, but the reality for the great, great majority of the kids that we institutionalize is the exact opposite. There are two statistics that I try to cite every time I speak about this because they were so stunning to me. The first is that in confidential surveys, 80 to 90 percent of all American teenagers talk about something that they have done that could have, under the law gotten them incarcerated. The second thing is that the greatest predictor that any kid, any person is going to wind up as an adult prisoner is not family dysfunction or drug use or mental illness or even committing delinquent acts as a juvenile because as it turns out every one does, it’s juvenile incarceration. So then there’s other research that shows that being incarcerated as a juvenile doubles the chances that somebody will be incarcerated as an adult. So it’s not just a negative experience, it’s working exactly against its intent, which isn’t surprising when you think about the primary developmental tasks of adolescence which is things like forming close relationships, figuring out one’s identity in relation to others, taking increased responsibility - these are all things that aren’t just made harder by incarceration, but are actually made impossible. Those who go in at 14 or 15 and come out at 21, 22 as legal adults talk about having spent those crucial years in an environment when they weren’t allowed to make a decision as simple as how long to brush their teeth and then being suddenly expected to function in the adult world. And it, for obvious reasons, just doesn’t work.
Julie: Did any of them find any long-lasting benefits to their lives of going through that experience.
Nell: Well a couple of kids said it’s safer in here than on the outside, which was just heartbreaking. I don’t know if that’s a benefit.
Julie: And is that because they’d be targeted by a gang or homeless?
Nell: Yeah, mostly because they had experienced violence before entering. And that’s another thing that is incredibly widespread--that the kids that we lock up are our most traumatized kids. One thing we don’t think about is that people who live in high crime neighborhoods are likely to be victims of crimes…violence in the home or violence in the street. In most cases, kids do go back to exactly the environment and the factors that contributed to their delinquency to begin with.
Julie: You’ve detailed many of the failures of the incarceration of juvenile lawbreakers. Which failures of the system do you expose or explain do you think would be most persuasive to lawmakers and the public?
Nell: I think that for the public it all goes back to your very first question, we have to see them as kids. When you prick me do I not bleed? We have to see they suffer like our kids suffer and they dream like our kids dream, that there’s no "super predator," no other species of kid.
It’s predicted that one in three kids will be arrested in their lifetime right now. The truth is that as things have changed significantly among the public since the height of the super predator scare and the spate of laws transferring juveniles to adult courts. If you look at public polling it shows a real change, a desire for rehabilitation, [away from] incarceration for its own sake.
For politicians: It costs $88,000 to incarcerate a kid on average, as opposed to about $10,000 to educate a kid. Where I live in California, it reached a high of $225,000 annually and education spending coincidentally dropped to $8000 [per student]. I used to refer to incarceration as the laststanding entitlement, but I think that it’s not standing on such strong legs anymore. I think the combination of the cost and the lack of benefit, the more clearly we can help politicians to understand and encourage them to help their constituencies understand that incarcerating a kid likely for a very low-level offense like shoplifting or truancy, if that doubles the chance that that child will escalate in delinquency, it’s not only not protecting public safety, it’s actually doing the exact opposite.
Okay, then what do you do? A lot of people will say to me that if we should get rid of these places, but then where are you going to put them? That’s, I think is so much of our culture that goes from the time-out, like pushing the kid out of the circle at pre-school through suspensions and expulsions. Our instinct, no matter how minor the level of offense, is to exclude.
Julie: What about the issue of race– the disproportionate prosecution of young people of color and the disproportionate forgiveness meted out to white youths. You’ve referred to this as “apartheid.” We have an African American president, a black Attorney General, both of whom are parents. Why doesn’t the federal government make the case for ending juvenile incarceration?
Nell: For one thing, I don’t think they can under the Constitution. We’re getting into an area of law that I’m not entirely clear on, but I don’t think a president could just decree that states could no longer incarcerate you and while the Supreme Court has begun to make some inroads into what the states can do, there have been several really important decisions in the last decade that have outlawed mandatory life sentences for juveniles for example, so there is some chipping away. We have actually a 40 percent decrease in the number of juveniles incarcerated in juvenile facilities over the course of a decade, which is a significant drop.
The Department of Justice has oversight over juvenile and adult facilities and has always investigated the worst of these facilities and if you read these investigations, they’re just damning. The problem is always with follow-up. And in the most egregious example I found, was [Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys] in Florida which is where they’ve now got a team digging up bones behind the facility to try to identify kids who just never came home and they’re approaching 100. Kids talked about being taken to a little outbuilding where they would be beaten so severely that parts of their flesh ended up on the walls. There was a series in the Tampa Bay Times that just ripped your heart out, but what really shocked me was to learn that the first investigation of these abuses took place in 1903 and there were at least a dozen that followed all of which in no uncertain terms described a horror chamber and there were these cycles of promises to reform and committees and commissions and clean-ups and that pattern repeats itself all across the country.
I didn’t go in necessarily with the idea that these places shouldn’t exist period, I think I went into the reporting with the idea that something really dark was happening inside of these places and it needed to be exposed so that it could be fixed. But what I found was that it had been exposed and exposed and exposed and exposed, but somehow the juvenile prison has this incredible immunity to reform. Bart Lubow at the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which supported the book, talks about institutional recidivism being the real problem as opposed to the 78 percent recidivism rates we see among juveniles.
Julie: What would humane treatment of juveniles who violate the law look like?
Nell: The evidence-based programs that I was talking about and that I described in the book [multi-systemic therapy and functional family therapy ] are called "evidence-based" because they’ve been intensively studied and work. Most of the states that have these kind of horrific warehouses also use these various active evidence-based practices, but it’s a pilot program available to x number of kids. So why it is that the intervention that works is the exception and the one that exacerbates the problem is the norm is something that still kind of baffles me.
Looking a little more broadly than these three programs that have been dubbed evidence-based, the research and very much my own experience tells me that the only thing that has ever rehabilitated a kid or turned a life around or just kind of helped a kid figure some things out and grow is connection and relationship. The resiliency research of shows this, but the kids who make it through adversity have at least one relationship with an adult that’s unconditional and long-lasting and involves mutual trust and I would say reciprocity. Not just charity, but reciprocity. So the fact that our instinct when a kid kind of wanders out of the tribe is to isolate him even further, to cut off all his natural relationships and then place him in an environment where forming new ones is discouraged or maybe impossible because of the dehumanizing conditions. It kind of boggles the mind, but that is the situation that we have now.
What do we do when a kid is scary, when that kid is hurting people, however he got there? In my last book, Ben Dahan, who ran various public systems in Oregon talked about our over-incarceration having the half life of plutonium, that if we were to stop now that’s how long it would take to undo the damage. The best answer I saw was in Missouri where they several decades ago, got rid of these large prison-like juvenile facilities and replaced them with small regional (i.e. close to home), more homelike, but still facilities at various levels, the highest level of which is locked, but created a real culture of rehabilitation. I think it’s in the book, but the maximum is maybe 35 kids and the staff at these facilities are just trained in a totally different way about who the kids are and what their job is in relation to them.
I spent some time with Tim Decker who heads the Missouri system at this time and all he talked about was relationships. I remember reading his testimony at federal hearings on sexual abuse in juvenile facilities, which is a huge, seemingly unfixable problem. Twelve percent of all kids in these facilities get raped or assaulted or otherwise abused and I think that the public kind of knows that. We make jokes about it. But what the public doesn’t know is that out of that 12 percent, two percent of the total is assaulted by their peers and 10 percent are assaulted by guards. We have legislation meant to end the sexual violence in prisons, which is kind of funny because it’s already illegal to rape a child, but we’re having a tremendously difficult time enforcing existing law in juvenile facilities.
I think Tim Decker, not his predecessor said why the rates in Missouri are so low. He didn’t talk about rules, he didn’t talk about training although training about boundaries is a big part of the Missouri model, but he just talked about the larger culture and I think he said this to me too, “Culture trumps everything.” There’s no amount of enforcement that can stop the guards from using their power and stop the kids from abusing their power. The culture has to change in the very few institutions we would have in a world where we only used incarceration as a last resort.
Julie: Your book takes a stand against reform. You are an abolitionist. You are calling not for a wrench, but a wrecking ball. How do you balance your ethics as a journalist with your passion as an advocate?
Nell: Honestly, I don’t consider myself a pure journalist in that sense, but I’m a journalist in that what I learn from my reporting guides what I write. I try not to come in with a preconceived notion. It was challenging with this one because I knew so much about this institution before I began writing the book, but even still I didn’t begin writing the book as an abolitionist, which is such a loaded word, right? But fair. It was what I learned that took me to that place and that’s journalism. We draw our conclusions from our reporting and everything I heard from the hundreds of kids I talked to, everything I saw and everything I read in the research and in the reams of federal investigation led me to the belief that taking angry and lonely and attention-seeking kids and removing all human contact could ever be an effective intervention.
With my last book, what I learned as a reporter about the damage that over-incarceration was doing to children and families did make me an advocate and one reason I didn’t write another book right away was that once I learned about this damage I felt the need to do something about it, but I’m not as good at that as I am about saying what should be done. It’s actually much harder. I run a coalition now that works to implement a bill of rights for children of incarcerated parents and I don’t know if it’s what I’m good at. It’s just much harder to get down there in the muck and actually try to make these changes happen than to sit at my computer and say they should happen and I have tremendous respect for the people who are doing reform work.
Julie: What is the role of the news media in both raising awareness or inspiring public engagement on the issue of juvenile justice. What questions should journalists be asking on the local level?
Nell: I think there are two things. One is that just because I have found this cycle of investigation and scandal and reform doesn’t lead to lasting change doesn’t mean that as journalists we’re not responsible for keeping it up because a lot of the change that has happened has been spurred by journalistic series. The potential of journalists to keep beating that drum is so great and a necessity. Because unlike City Hall where the hearings are open to the public, without journalists we have the luxury of just not knowing what’s happening behind those walls. But the second part I think again goes back to something we talked about, which is humanizing the children. So not just writing stories about what’s being done to them, but keeping up the drumbeat of who they are and how they experience their lives and what really makes a difference. It’s all so very important. I think this is an issue where journalists are more necessary than anyone just because it’s by its very nature hidden
Nell Bernstein is the author of "Burning Down the House: The End of Juvenile Prison" and "All Alone in the World: Children of the Incarcerated." She was named a White House Champion of Change in 2013. She is a former Journalism Fellow in Child and Family Policy at the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism.