The American rate of juvenile incarceration is seven times that of Great Britain, and 18 times that of France. It costs, on average, $88,000 a year to keep a youth locked up — far more than the U.S. spends on a child's education.
But the biggest problem with juvenile incarceration, author Nell Bernstein tells Fresh Air's Dave Davies, is that instead of helping troubled kids get their lives back on track, detention usually makes their problems worse, and sets them in the direction of more crime and self-destructive behavior.
"The greatest predictor of adult incarceration and adult criminality wasn't gang involvement, wasn't family issues, wasn't delinquency itself," Bernstein says. "The greatest predictor that a kid would grow up to be a criminal was being incarcerated in a juvenile facility."
Bernstein's new book, Burning Down the House: The End of Juvenile Prison, takes an in-depth look at juvenile incarceration. The journalist has spent years covering the juvenile justice system, and has interviewed hundreds of young people in detention facilities.
"Almost from the moment a young person walks in those gates, it's made very clear to him that he's a prisoner," she says. "I know that when I go into these places and cross the razor wire and hand over my driver's license, I often feel like I've stamped my passport at the border of a new country. It's that different."
While many states have tried to reform their juvenile detention facilities, Bernstein says that locking young people away is the wrong way to deal with most youth offenders. Their experiences behind those walls help shape who they are.
"It's their identity, and eventually it's their lot in life," she says, "which goes a long way to explaining why juvenile [detention] predicts adult incarceration."
On the kinds of offenses juveniles commit
We tend to think of any kind of prison as full of murderers and rapists. That's not the case. About 40 percent of those that we keep in large-scale state facilities — which are intended for the worst of the worst, as opposed to county juvenile halls — about 40 percent of them are there for not just low-level offenses but very low-level offenses: truancy, shoplifting, loitering, disturbing the peace. So especially the younger kids enter with these very low-level offenses. Only about a quarter are there for violent crime index offenses, which include rape and murder but also robbery and aggravated assault.
On fear and punishment
A lot of them talked about being numb to fear, but some of that felt like leftover bravado to me, because the stories they told of what actually happened to them were so terrifying that I can't believe that there wasn't fear.
One young man described arriving at a new facility just as a fight broke out in the dormitory to which he had been assigned. And although he hadn't been involved, his whole dorm was stripped to their boxers, handcuffed, chained together, taken to the gymnasium and forced to kneel there for what turned out to be two weeks. Is fear the right word for what you feel during an experience like that? I don't know, because, again, he described his humanity draining out of him as he listened to the guards banter and tell jokes and just pass the time, as if these were something other than suffering human beings on the floor in front of them. ...
I have to say, whenever I could, I checked these stories against official transcripts — and there are a lot of them because these places get sued very frequently — and in almost every case what I heard was either verified, or what I read was even worse than what the young people had told me.
On the therapeutic treatment in juvenile facilities
There is a movement towards treatment inside juvenile facilities, and I sat in on some of these groups, these therapeutic modalities ... and what the kids would tell me was, "I'm supposed to open my heart in group and put my deepest traumas on the table, but the guy leading the group has the key to my cell." So right there you have a conundrum.
A few kids told me that although they were told that group was a "safe place," if they didn't tell their story, or if they told it in a way that didn't match their file, they would get a write-up for not taking responsibility for their actions or not participating in the program — and that could, in fact, delay their release date.
I went in with a positive idea about treatment-oriented facilities, but I came out thinking that it's just paradoxical. You can't have a therapeutic interaction with a guy who has the key to your cell.
On sexual abuse in juvenile facilities
We have a federal law, PREA, the Prison Rape Elimination Act, which includes adults and juveniles and has taken 10 years to get even to the implementation phase. But to me the idea that we need a special law telling adults not to rape the kids that they are in charge of is just stunning to me.
Twelve percent of kids, at least, are being abused inside these facilities, and ... there's a general culture of impunity. I think I can count on probably one hand the number of instances in which a guard was actually prosecuted for raping somebody in his care. What that tells the kids is, "I steal a pack of cigarettes and I'm gone. He does this to me, and the worst that's going to happen to him is a transfer or maybe a fine." So what the kids learn from that is, it's not just what they do that makes them delinquents; it's who they are.
On race and juvenile facilities
A black kid today is almost five times more likely to be locked up as a white kid who committed the exact same crime. ...
Eighty to 90 percent of all American teenagers in confidential interviews will acknowledge that they have committed an offense or offenses that under the law they could be locked up for. Most of those kids, nothing happens. There are not police cruisers in my neighborhood. If my son [who is white] happened to be standing on the corner, he's not going to be stopped and frisked. And if he happened to have bag of marijuana in his pocket, nobody is going to find it. Those kinds of differential treatment ... permeate the system from arrest all the way through re-entry [into the community].
On an alternative to juvenile incarceration
Missouri is a very hopeful example. They got rid of all of their large facilities and replaced them with very small, family-like houses where the staff were trained to connect to the children.
But what most impressed me were a trio of programs that are known as "the evidence-based programs" because they've been extensively studied. ... What all three of them do is keep a child in the community, connect that child with a case worker who is available to him around the clock for a limited period of time. I think the key about these programs is that they work with the child and his family, because kids come back to their families, and if family problems contributed to delinquency, if you just ignore the family again, you're setting kids up for failure.
Those [programs] have success rates much, much higher than the negative 100 percent success rate that incarceration does. They're used across the country, that's what's so confounding. And the jurisdictions that use them brag about them, but they use them for [only] a few kids. They're boutique alternatives, when all the evidence is that they should be the norm. And incarceration — if used at all — should be the exception.
More On Juvenile Incarceration:
- In Juvenile Detention, Girls Find Health System Geared To Boys
- Kids Behind Bars: Illinois Rethinks Juvenile Justice
Copyright NPR. View this article on npr.org.
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross who's off this week. The United States incarcerates far more of its young people than any other industrialized nation, according to our guest, Nell Bernstein. The American rate of juvenile incarceration is seven times that of Great Britain and 18 times that of France. It costs on average $88,000 a year to keep a youth locked up, far more than we spend on a child's education.
But the biggest problem with juvenile incarceration, Bernstein says, is that instead of helping troubled kids get their lives back on track, detention usually makes their problems worse. And, sets them in the direction of more crime and self-destructive behavior. While many states have tried to reform their juvenile detention facilities, she concludes that locking young people away is the wrong way to deal with most youth offenders. Nell Bernstein is a journalist who's spent years covering the juvenile justice system and has interviewed hundreds of young people in detention facilities. Her work has appeared in Newsday, Salon, Mother Jones and The Washington Post. And she has an earlier book about children whose parents are in prison called "All Alone in the World." Her new book is "Burning Down the House: The End of Juvenile Prison." Nell Bernstein, welcome to FRESH AIR. You in the book talk about the conditions in and experience of kids in youth prisons. let's just go over some of that. What's check-in like?
NELL BERNSTEIN: Well, everything about the physical plant of a juvenile prison -and I use the word prison because that's what they are, although we call them ranches and training schools and everything but prison - the physical plant of most of them is designed to inspire fear. So their usually cited in the middle of nowhere. The first thing that you see is coils of razor wire, which is in of itself very frightening - it sort of says to you, you will experience pain here. There's a sally port, you go through gates that lock behind you. The behavior of the adults around you changes abruptly. Almost from the moment a young person walks in those gates it's made very clear to him that he is a prisoner. I know that when I go into these places and cross the razor wire and hand over my drivers license, I often feel like I've stamped my passport at the border of a new country. It's that different.
DAVIES: What are cells like where kids sleep?
BERNSTEIN: Well, that's a word you're not allowed to use, you're supposed to call them rooms. But they are in fact cells. They tend to be very bare-bones - metal or cement bunk, a metal toilet. If you're lucky you'll get a desk. Sometimes you can keep a few personal effects like photographs. Other times you can't. But really what you have is an 8 and a half by 11 cinderblock square.
DAVIES: And what kind of bedding?
BERNSTEIN: Sometimes it's a concrete bunk that sticks out in the wall. Other times it's mental. In some facilities young people sleep in dormitories, so then you get rows and rows of these bunks and the only private space that you have is the boundaries of your bunk. The whole purpose is to make sure that young people understand that they're meant to be uncomfortable and that they're going to be given just what they need to survive but no more.
DAVIES: And what do kids tell you about their daily experience? What do they do with their time?
BERNSTEIN: You know, I have to say young people tend to talk less about their daily experience than about the more extreme experiences of abuse and violence. But one thing that really surprised me was the boredom that you feel once you enter one of these places. There is a sense of fear. A sense that something terrible could happen at any moment. But there's also this tremendous lethargy. It's almost soporific when you walk into one of the day rooms and see these boys slouched over these tiny plastic chairs or halfway watching something on the Discovery Channel. And it gives you a tremendous feeling of just wasted time and wasted adolescent energy. The other thing that young people will talk about after a time is the isolation. In other words, above and beyond whatever abuse they may experience - what it feels like to be separated from their family, from their neighborhood, from their community. One young man described it as similar to drowning. And he had had a near drowning experience. He talked about that same feeling of pressure on his lungs and a feeling that he was sinking deeper and deeper and wouldn't be able to emerge.
DAVIES: And how much is fear a part of these kids every day experience? What did they tell you about that?
BERNSTEIN: A lot of them talked about being numb to fear. But some of that felt like left over bravado to me because the stories they told of what actually happened to them were so terrifying that I can't believe that there wasn't fear. One young man described arriving at a new facility just as a fight broke out in the dormitory to which he had been assigned. And although he hadn't been involved, his whole dorm was stripped to their boxes, handcuffed, chained together, taken to the gymnasium and forced to kneel there for what would turn out to be two weeks. Is fear the right word for what you feel during an experience like that? I don't know because, again, he described his humanity draining out of him as he listened to the guards banter and tell jokes and just pass the time as if these were something other than suffering human beings on the floor in front of them.
DAVIES: This is a common practice when there's a disturbance or is it punishment, they would handcuff kids and make them kneel?
BERNSTEIN: You know, you hear the phrase safety and security a lot. There's so many words that aren't used - words like cell, words like prison. A word like punishment wouldn't be used, but it's hard to imagine a different motive for something like that or for spraying a kid point blank in the eyes with a pepper spray fogger. So yeah, I think punishment is actually a fair description. And I have to say, whenever I could, I checked the stories against official transcripts, and there are a lot of them because these places get sued very frequently. And in almost every case, what I heard was either verified or what I read was even worse than what the young people had told me.
DAVIES: What kinds of offenses get kids into these institutions and how old are kids that we're talking about?
BERNSTEIN: That is something that was really surprising to me. I think that we tend to think of any kind of prison as full of murderers and rapists. That's not the case. About 40 percent of those that we keep in large scale state facilities, which are intended for the worst of the worst as opposed to County juvenile halls, about 40 percent of them are there for not just low level offenses but very low level offenses - truancy, shoplifting, loitering, disturbing the peace - so especially the younger kids enter with these very low level offenses. Only about a quarter are there for violent crime index offenses, which include rape and murder but also robbery and aggravated assault.
DAVIES: And how old are kids that are sent to these places?
BERNSTEIN: You know, it varies from state to state. I interviewed a kid who had gone in at 10, came out, I think, at 16 or 17. They can keep them until 24 or 25 in a lot of cases. So this 10 year old was in there with grown men and ended up spending months at a time in solitary confinement because he felt he had to fight to make sure that he wasn't victimized in that environment. So you asked about fear certainly a 10-year-old is afraid in that kind of a setting.
DAVIES: It seems a number of the kids that you spoke to talked about being tough or seeming tough, never showing fear. This was common?
BERNSTEIN: Yeah, they even have their own sort of language - machine down, which means don't show your emotions, talk is dead, which means what it sounds like. They all felt that they had to create this sort of impermeable affectless persona. And when young people, if I met them soon after they came out, they still had that prison yard face, which is not hostile but sort of frozen, not showing any emotion, because showing emotion is seen as showing weakness and that makes you prey.
DAVIES: We were talking about what gets kids into prison. You know, I think a lot of people would imagine that people who spend months or even years in confinement must have committed something pretty serious. When these kids are sent to detention, confinement, prisons - whatever term we might want to use - is it for a specific term. I mean, you know, adults are sentenced to a prison term and then there's a probationary period after that. When kids are adjudicated delinquent and sent to one of these facilities, what are the terms of the arrangement?
BERNSTEIN: It varies from state to state. But often there is a lot of latitude. For instance, the 10 year old I told you about, expected to be there for a couple of years. I think he had stabbed a teacher with a pencil. He was there for six years because of the fights. So your behavior in this very unnatural environment can extend your stay. And that was a pretty big challenge.
DAVIES: So kids are sent there but then can stay much longer than was anticipated? There's not a term per-se typically?
BERNSTEIN: Well, you age out at whatever the maximum age is in that state, so 21, 24, 25. Some young people felt that as they got close - timing out, timing out is the phrase - that as they got close to that moment, either they were provoked or false charges were placed on them because if you get a new charge in a juvenile facility and you're over 18, then you go on to an adult facility. So that was something that I saw happen and that young people feared whether or not it did happen to them. I don't want to overdo it with statistics, but I will say that one that really shocked me was that the greatest predictor of adult incarceration and adult criminality wasn't gang involvement, wasn't family issues, wasn't delinquency itself. The biggest predictor that a kid would grow up to be a criminal was being incarcerated in a juvenile facility.
DAVIES: Nell Bernstein's book is "Burning Down the House: The End of Juvenile Prison." We'll talk some more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, we're speaking with Nell Bernstein. Her book about juvenile prisons is called "Burning Down The House." You know, these are school age kids, mostly. And I think most people would expect that kids would get educational instruction while they're in prison, and some kinds of treatments for some of the issues that they have. I mean, a lot of them come from abusive backgrounds. A lot of them probably have drug use and alcohol issues. What kinds of treatment and educational opportunities do these facilities offer?
BERNSTEIN: Well, the law mandates that they be allowed to go to school, but the education that they get is often pretty cursory. And it's also very common for a kid to have a hard time reconnecting with the schools once he or she gets out. Treatment is a much trickier issue. There is a movement towards treatment inside juvenile facilities. And I sat in on some of these groups - these therapeutic modalities, and every state, again, has a different name. And what the kids would tell me was, you know, I'm supposed to open my heart in group and put my deepest traumas on the table, but the guy leading the group has the key to my cell. So right there you have a conundrum.
The second one was a few kids told me that although they were told that group was, quote, unquote, a safe place, if they didn't tell their story, or if they told it in a way that didn't match their file, they would get a write up for not taking responsibility for their actions or not participating in the program. And that could, in fact, delay their release state. So I went in with a, sort of a positive idea about treatment oriented facilities. But I came out thinking that it's just paradoxical. You can't have a therapeutic interaction with a guy who has the key to your cell.
DAVIES: When you said that the person who is leading the group has the key to their cell, what you mean? What problems does that present?
BERNSTEIN: Well, think about what happens when you or I decide to seek therapy. We can expect privacy, we can expect confidentiality, and we can assume that the therapist is there as our ally. A young person who is involved in a therapeutic program in prison can't assume any of those things. Beyond the lack of privacy in the group, kids would talk about guards, other guards, approaching them later and saying oh, you know, I hear that you've got such and such and such and such a disorder, and kind of throwing it in their faces. So no expectation of privacy. You know, kids don't tend to think of the guards as their allies. And just like every other place in the prison, it's a place where if they make a misstep, there will be consequences. And I think it then becomes very hard for them to, to connect in a real way, which is what they most need.
DAVIES: I'm sure they are not called guards in these facilities, but that's what the kids think of them as, I'm sure. What did you hear from kids about how common abuse is at the hands of guards?
BERNSTEIN: You know, again it varied. I don't like to make the guards the bad guys. I met some who, in what I saw, were very kind in their interactions with the kids. When I talked to them, they had a much greater understanding of where the kids were coming from, both literally and figuratively, than the general public does. At the same time, you have federal statistics showing that more than a third of kids experience, while they call it unnecessary force, but in many cases that's physical abuse. Sexual abuse is something that 12 percent of juvenile prisoners experience. And I think, you know, that's in the culture. We make don't drop the soap jokes. But only 2 percent were abused by other wards. Ten percent, so one in 10 of the kids who go into these facilities, is raped or otherwise sexually assaulted by a guard. So these numbers, and the stories that I did here along with them, raise some serious issues. And I think even if you're not the perpetrator, one girl talked about being abused by her counselor, and again this comes back to the therapy question. She had been involved in sex work on the streets. And as part of her therapeutic process, he first made her recount what she had done with other men and then reenact it. So there's that. And then, there was an experience...
DAVIES: If I can just interrupt here, reenact it with whom?
BERNSTEIN: With him. So he, he abused not only her, but his role as her counselor to get her to perform sex acts on him. That was one of the worst stories I heard. I was also really troubled to hear that at one point, they were in his office and another officer walked in on them. And she thought for a moment that she'd be rescued. That it would end.
DAVIES: Walked in when they were engaged in sexual acts.
BERNSTEIN: I would say walked in when he was raping her, yes. And this other guard said oh, oh, I'm sorry, sorry. And closed the door really quickly. And that was when she realized that she really was thrown to the wolves.
DAVIES: There was a congressional investigation of sexual abuse in these facilities. What did it find and what resulted from it?
BERNSTEIN: You know, I think if we lined all the congressional investigations of these places up, they would circle the earth several times. The degree to which we know that this is happening is staggering. We have a federal law, PREA, the prison rape elimination act, which includes adults and juveniles, and has taken 10 years to get even to the implementation phase. But to me, the idea that we need a special law telling adults not to rape the kids that they are in charge of is just stunning to me. What did the investigation reveal, it revealed, as I said, that 12 percent of kids, at least, are being abused inside these facilities and that there's a general culture of impunity. I think I can count on probably one hand the number of instances in which a guard was actually prosecuted for raping somebody in his care. And what that tells the kids is, you know, I steal a pack of cigarettes and I'm gone. He does this to me, and the worst that's going to happen to him is a transfer, or maybe a fine. So what the kids learn from that is it's not just what they do that makes them delinquents, it's who they are. It's their identity. And eventually, it's their lot in life, which goes a long way to explaining why juvenile incarceration predicts adult incarceration.
DAVIES: Nell Bernstein will be back in the second half of the show. Her book is "Burning Down the House: The End of Juvenile Prison." I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross who's off this week. We're speaking with journalist Nell Bernstein, who spent years covering America's juvenile justice system and has interviewed hundreds of people locked in juvenile detention facilities. Her new book describes harsh conditions and abuses in juvenile facilities and makes the case that locking young people up is the wrong way to deal with most youth offenders. Her book is called "Burning Down The House: The End Of Juvenile Prison." How do American rates of juvenile incarceration compare to the rest of the world?
BERNSTEIN: They are off the charts, despite the fact that rates are actually going down in the United States, I think we're - I don't know - seven times ahead of our closest competitor, which may be Somalia. And when you compare us to European countries, we're literally off the charts. Other countries look at what we're doing and are just astounded that we use incarceration at the rate that we do and for the range of, quote-unquote, "offenses" that we do.
DAVIES: Has it always been this way? How did we get here?
BERNSTEIN: Well, we have not always incarcerated so many people, but we have always, since the beginning of the House of Refuge, in the 1800s used juvenile prisons as a way to control racial groups that were worrying us. There's this idea that that's something new. The Houses of Refuge were, essentially, intended for Irish and German immigrant groups. And over the centuries, as we concerned ourselves with different groups, those were the groups that somehow got rounded up and put into these places. You know, and again, I don't want to barrage you with statistics, but a black kid today is almost five times more likely to be locked up as a white kid who committed the exact same crime and is as comparable as scientists can come up with. But of all of the statistics that demonstrate that incarceration is intended for particular racial groups, the one that really leaps out at me as a parent - really as a parent of white children - is that 90 percent - 80 to 90 percent of all American teenagers in confidential interviews will acknowledge that they have committed an offense or offenses that, under the law, they could be locked up for. Most of those kids just - nothing happens, you know. There are not police cruisers in my neighborhood. If my son happened to be standing on the corner, he's not going to get stopped and frisked. And if he happened to have a bag of marijuana in his pocket, nobody's going to find it. And those kinds of differential treatment - I think is the right term - permeate the system from arrest all the way through re-entry.
DAVIES: Did you say that you think it's a purpose of juvenile detention to control or to put away kids of certain racial backgrounds?
BERNSTEIN: Well, I guess that's an inflammatory statement...
DAVIES: It implies intent - somebody's decided to do this.
BERNSTEIN: Well, let me put it this way - it's a pretty big mistake if it's just a coincidence. And the term you hear a lot is racial disparities. We have 18 million committees and task forces and blue ribbon commissions aimed at investigating these huge racial disparities. The problem I have with that term is that it implies that it might just be an act of nature or that some groups may be committing a lot more delinquent acts than others. The problem with that is that the research completely belies that. For instance, white youth are, I think, a third more likely to be involved in drug related crimes than black youth. But black youth are 25 percent more likely to be locked up for drug-related crimes. And when you really line things up, take a particular offense, the disparities get even greater. So is there some evil white sheriff giving orders to round up all the black kids? Well, you know, look at Tulia, Texas - we have had those stories. More often I think it's a little more subtle than that. But I think that intent of some sort is a little more plausible than coincidence.
DAVIES: You know, you said that juvenile incarceration has actually declined in recent years, in part, because state and local governments are under fiscal stress and it's expensive to run prisons. There's been, you know, some research about the effect of adolescent brains - I know you mentioned that that has an impact. And you look at some of the reform efforts that have been underway. You talk about a woman, Gladys Carrion, who heads, essentially, I guess, the New York State Division of Children and Youth, is that right?
BERNSTEIN: Office of Children and Family Services at the time, I think her title has changed, but don't try to keep up with the acronyms in New York, it's a losing battle.
DAVIES: But she sort of heads the state of the New York's child welfare system, right?
BERNSTEIN: And juvenile justice.
BERNSTEIN: She did when I was writing the book.
DAVIES: Right. And it was interesting that she seemed to reach the conclusion that reforming these juvenile prisons, these juvenile detention centers, just wasn't enough - you actually had to close them. And others have reached conclusion. Why?
BERNSTEIN: Well, the most famous example is Jerry Miller who became the commissioner in Massachusetts in the '70s. And like Gladys Carrion, he came in as a reformer, but was so defeated by public resistance, political resistance and I think most of all the resistance of his own staff, that he decided that it would be a lot easier to just open the doors and let the kids out than to reform the institutions. And that's what he did. He very quickly assembled community placements, group homes and some kids he did just let walk out. And the results were positive enough that 40 states actually followed suit. And I think that's a reason why, like these two commissioners, I ended up reaching a more radical conclusion, honestly, than I expected to when I set out to write this book. I wanted to expose these problems and talk about how to fix them. But the more I learned, especially the more I learned about how very many times we've tried to do that, the more I had to conclude that the problems were intrinsic to an environment where there was such a power differential between captive and capture and where adolescents' fundamental need for connection and relationship was not only not being met, but was impossible to meet, that there really wasn't a way to fix it.
DAVIES: I wanted to ask you, you know, Gladys Carrion, when she was changing New York's system of juvenile treatment detention. One of the interesting moments was when she spoke to judges, you know, the judges juvenile Family Court judges, who had been sending kids away to these institutions. What did they know and not know about the institutions they were sending kids to?
BERNSTEIN: That's a stunning story. She went to the judges and she said, look, you're sending me far too many low-level offenders who don't need to be in my facilities, please stop. And they said, well, we'd like to but we've got kids who've got serious mental health needs. We're sending them to you for services because we don't have them anywhere else to send them. And she said, guys, I don't have any services. At that point she didn't have one staff psychiatrist. So the judges thought that the kids would at least get some help while they were locked up. Meanwhile, the person running the system knew that that help was not available. She's since tried to build it in, but it was a huge disconnect. I think it was Senator Durbin who held a hearing on solitary confinement and asked his colleagues to do one thing, which was visit a prison in their jurisdiction. It's amazing how many people who make decisions about groups of kids, legislators - about individual kids - judges, have never actually visited the places they're sending kids and have a very distorted picture of what goes on there.
DAVIES: Nell Bernstein's book is "Burning Down The House: The End Of Juvenile Prison." We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Nell Bernstein. Her book about juvenile prison is called, "Burning Down The House." How common is solitary confinement in juvenile facilities?
BERNSTEIN: Solitary confinement is outrageously common. The official numbers say that about a third of young people will experience solitary confinement while they're locked up. I don't think I met a kid who had not experienced it in some form. Again, that may be because of the euphemisms. Nobody likes to call it solitary. It's called ad seg, or special housing unit - or, my personal favorite, reflection cottages. But, really, what happens - what the kids described to me was, for instance, a girl asserts that she's feeling suicidal. The equivalent of a SWAT team rushes into her cell, strips her naked and throws her into an even more barren cell with only, like, a single, rough blanket to cover her. It's used to respond to suicide threats. It's used as punishment for aggressors. It's used to protect those who are imposed upon by those aggressors. It can be used because there's a shortage of teachers, and they can't let the kids out of their rooms. And, you know, the United Nations has declared it torture - period - to put an adolescent in solitary. Fifteen hours is the maximum for adults under their standards. But I met kids who'd been in solitary for months.
DAVIES: For months?
BERNSTEIN: For months. And it's pretty widely known within, you know, psychiatric circles, that what protracted solitary confinement - and by protracted I mean, really, anything more than a few hours - does, is drive people crazy. I had the really tragic misfortune of seeing it happen to a young girl I was close to. And it's just heartbreaking.
DAVIES: Do you want to tell us that story?
BERNSTEIN: I do. One of my staff was a young woman named Eliza, who had been in, I think, 30 or 40 group homes - she had lost count - by the age of 14 - and, at that point, had decided she'd be better off on her own and was living on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, with college students, or on the street - whatever she could do. She was doing, under the circumstances, really well. She lied about her age and got a waitressing job. She got a GED because she really wanted to go to college. She was convinced that with her intelligence, which was remarkable, that would free her. And I remember the day she called me to tell me that she had enrolled in classes - over the moon, reading the catalog out loud to me. A few days later, she called again, kind of deflated because she had gone into the financial aid office and discovered that she had an outstanding warrant, I think from a fight long ago, during the group home days. And to clear that - without that warrant cleared she couldn't get financial aid. And to clear it, she'd have to spend three days in county jail. She thought she could do it. She'd been through a lot, right? So she went into the county jail and, I think it was on the first day, got into a fight. And I think she had been abused so much in her life that, once she got started, it was really hard for her to stop. So it was an effort for the guards to break up the fight, and they didn't like that. So they threw her into something known as a cold cell. A cold cell is an empty, tiled room with nothing but a drain in the floor. The CIA uses it to break down suspected terrorists. But even the CIA has to have somebody at quite a high level, a deputy director, sign off on it. In Eliza's case, they just stripped her bare and tossed her in. When I saw her a few days later, she said that the moment they shut the door on her, she began to scream and pound on the door and couldn't stop. And they kept telling her that her screaming was unbearable, and that they would let her out just as soon as she stopped. But she couldn't stop. Eventually, jail psych came and sedated her. And she stopped. And they let her out. What made this so destructive was that Eliza had requisitioned her child welfare file and learned that, as an infant, her mother would go out to score drugs and would leave her naked and alone in a crib, which felt very much like a cage to her. So that feeling of being naked and trapped and powerless - nobody hearing your cries - she really felt like she regressed in the cold cell and went all the way back to the abandonment of her infancy. And it's an extreme example, but it's quite common for traumatized kids to be re-traumatized inside juvenile facilities. And I have to say, I've kept in touch with her, and she just has never been the same. She's got a flatness about her. She didn't go to college. She's been homeless. She's been in domestic violence shelters. I really think that, in that case, they did what the CIA sets out to do with cold cells, which was they broke her spirit.
DAVIES: You looked at a lot of places that have tried a more therapeutic approach to juvenile treatment - in some cases detention, in some cases, you know, group homes and all. What are you excited about? You looked at the program in Missouri - the Missouri Model. Are there hopeful examples out there?
BERNSTEIN: Missouri is a very hopeful example. They got rid of all their large facilities and replaced them with very small, family-like - I don't even want to call them facilities - houses, where the staff were trained to connect to the children. I was impressed with that. But what most impressed me were a trio of programs that are known as the evidence-based programs because they've been extensively studied. Too many acronyms to dump on you right now, but multi-systemic therapy is one of them. What all three of them do is keep a child in the community - connect that child with a caseworker who's available to him around the clock for a limited period of time. And I think the key thing about these programs is that they work with the child and his family because kids come back to their families. And if family problems contributed to delinquency, if you just ignore the family, again, you're setting kids up for failure. And those have success rates much, much higher than the negative 100 percent success rate that incarceration does. And they're used across the country. That's what's so, kind of, confounding. And the jurisdictions that use them brag about them, but they use them for a few kids. They are, sort of, boutique alternatives, when all the evidence is that they should be the norm. And incarceration, if used at all, should be the exception.
DAVIES: You know, when I read about these evidence-based programs, it reminded me of some things I've seen when I've covered local government for a lot of years, myself. And to implement it on a - to scale it up for, you know, a system-wide use, it requires a real effort. You have to hire and train a lot of people. You make the point, that's still a lot cheaper than sending those kids to juvenile detention, which is enormously expensive. But how do you convince local governments that the numbers work?
BERNSTEIN: Well, I think that's a really important point because one reason we're still so invested in incarceration is that we're very invested in incarceration. It's got its own economy. And when they talk about closing a prison, the politicians who represent the upstate regions where that facility is probably the biggest employer, press very hard. And they're quite explicit about the need to keep it open because it provides jobs. Gladys Carrion in New York said, my job is not economic development for upstate New York. I'm not going to keep sending black and brown kids upstate to provide jobs. I can't imagine another administrator who would say that.
DAVIES: Well, Nell Bernstein, thanks so much for speaking with us.
BERNSTEIN: Thank you.
DAVIES: Nell Bernstein is a journalist who spent years reporting on the juvenile justice system. Her new book is, "Burning Down The House: The End Of Juvenile Prison." Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews a new album from Miranda Lambert. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.