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One of the most common examples of widespread abuse in American juvenile correctional institutions is the callous and malicious treatment often employed by institutional staff. Institutional abuse can mean many things, but usually refers to the physical or emotional cruelty inflicted on youth by staff. This pernicious reality has been constant throughout American history since the opening of the nation’s first youth correctional facility in 1825 — the New York House of Refuge. Occasionally, this reality is publicly exposed resulting in a chorus denunciations and recriminations by media and elected officials. Public exposure then forces momentary reflection, but as the initial concern fades, the old practices quickly return. Consider the following example from an 1869 article in the San Francisco Daily Bulletin about the treatment of youth in the San Francisco Industrial School.

Punishments of the most barbarous description have been inflicted on the boy inmates from time to time down to a date very recent. 1st — Report of the Grand Jury in April 1868 [See Report]. 2 — The ducking and gagging of Wilcox and Benett by Captain Morrill on the 29th of May. This method is not contemplated in the rules of the Board, which is by clear implication prohibited by Section 2 Article 8 of the Bye-Laws, which prescribes what punishment shall be inflicted for the offenses charged on the pupils Wilcox and Bennett by Capt. Morrill viz disobeying orders, resisting officers, and breaking articles. 3rd — Punishment by close confinement, bread and water diet of the boy Willie Stevens for purloining a piece of bread. 4th ‑The case of the boy Cassidy, alleged to have had a rib broken by the butt end of a cowhide whip in the hands of Col. Wood. Girls lashed to bleeding and scars by Col. Wood. Case of the boy Fletcher Wooster who is alleged to have been jammed against the wall, struck four or five times, struck with the fist and kicked with is boot by Colonel Wood. Open declaration of Captain Morrill that had bucked and gagged pupils and would repeat it if necessary. The whipping of Benjamin Napthali till shreds of his shirt stuck to the wounds on his back, and the shirt glued to his body by the blood in the morning, so that it required assistance to get free from it; punishment by John A Moore, a teacher, October 2d, 1877, of 200 lashes on the same pupil. 9th — Same pupil flogged by Moore afterwards under misapprehension of facts; teacher afterwards apologized to Naphtali for mistake. 10th — The boy Bennet, after being bucked and gagged, was kept in cell by Captain Morrill on bread and water, from May 29th to June 21st; Bennett has since been shipped. 11th ‑Wilcox shut in cell after bucking and gagging, from May 29th to June 13th; the subsequent refusal of an interview between him and his mother and sister on permit from a Director. 12th — Flogging of the Spanish boy Manual Medora, about April, 1867, by reason of which it is alleged he was thrown into melancholy, when he declared to some of his comrades that he would kill himself: his alleged suicide a few days afterwards by being found in a pond or lake near the School. 13th — Flogging of boy for insulting Director Cobb, for which he received 120 lashes and fainted. 14th — Teacher DeWolf placing bread and butter on the table to tempt pupils, then if anyone took the food he was locked up and otherwise punished… (Reform Schools — The Indus. Sch. of this City — Faults of Discipline, THE DAILY BULLETIN, July 14, 1869, at 1). 

Now flash forward to the recent scandals in youth correctional institutions around the United States such as the long term and rampant sexual and physical abuse of youths in the custody of the Texas Youth Commission by institutional staff. 

In 2004, the nation was shocked when a video of two California Youth Authority wards being beaten by two staff while other staff stood around and watched was shown on national television. After the incident, the staff filed falsified reports to cover-up the incident. It was not until the surveillance video was leaked to the public, that it became a scandal that triggered a public response. 

California, like many states, is currently engaged in the most comprehensive reassessment of its youth corrections system in recent history. The question that is yet to be answered is whether the state will abandon the old abusive institutional practices that have dominated the system since the 19th century. We will see.