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We’ve always known that locking up kids is counterproductive, that it promotes isolation and lethargy among youths confined, and that it results in harsher treatment by decision makers throughout the process. Terry Kupers, an expert on trauma, has observed that these institutions tend to destroy a prisoner’s ability to cope in the free world.” Moreover, a lack of rehabilitation opportunities, excessive reliance on isolation as punishment, the restriction of visits and contacts with the outside world, the pervasiveness of sexual abuse, disrespect at every turn, the failure of pre-planning release — all these things add up to throwing the prisoner who completes a term out into the world broken, with no skills, and a very high risk of recidivism” (“Prison and the Decimation of Pro-social Life Skills” in A. Ojeda (ed.), The Trauma of Psychological Torture. New York: Praeger, 2008). Now we can add death to the list. A study published in the respected medical journal Pediatrics documents that youths entering the juvenile justice system are four times more likely than the general population to die, with 90% of the deaths attributed to homicide. The researchers also noted that the mortality rate among female youth was nearly 8 times the general-population rate.” Researchers tracked a sample of 1,829 youths processed through the Cook County Juvenile Court starting in 1995, with a 3‑year follow-up period. Not surprisingly, the death rate for black youths was the highest, followed closely by Hispanics (of the 65 who died, 23 were black and 21 were Hispanic).

The most recent survey of those in juvenile prisons reveals what everyone has known for years, namely that most had experienced some kind of abuse prior to being committed. In fact, the survey found that 70% had experienced some type of past traumatic experience, much of it related to physical or sexual abuse. About one-fifth (22%) attempted suicide.

Although there have been some improvements over the years the current juvenile justice system — especially detention facilities and youth prisons — can be linked with the 19th century houses of refuge like a giant umbilical cord.