In Black America Podcast: ‘Burning Down The House’ Makes The Case to Eliminate Juvenile Prisons

Dec 23, 2014

Nell Bernstein

On this edition of In Black America, producer/host John L. Hanson Jr. speaks with Nell Bernstein, award-winning journalist and author of “Burning Down The House:  The End of Juvenile Prisons.”

Today, youths in juvenile prisons are disproportionately children of color from poor neighborhoods, and Bernstein says they’re more likely to have been victims of violence than to have committed it. And African American teens are locked up at five times the rate of whites.

The cost of incarcerating children is staggering – this country spends an average of about $88,000 a year to incarcerate a youth in a juvenile facility. That’s more than eight times the average of $10,652 we spend annually to educate a child.

One in three American schoolchildren will be arrested by the time they are twenty-three, many of them for so-called status offenses—including cutting school, drinking alcohol, or disrespecting a police officer—that are not crimes for adults. Despite recent reforms, too many youths will land in horrific state detention facilities where children as young as twelve are preyed upon by guards; driven mad by months in solitary; and, in their own words, “treated like animals.” Beyond these abuses, the very act of isolating children in punitive prisons denies delinquent youth the one thing essential to rehabilitation: positive relationships with caring adults. In this clear-eyed indictment of a failed institution—the juvenile detention facility—Bernstein shows that there is no right way to lock up a child.

Bernstein introduces us to youth across the nation who have suffered violence and psychological torture at the hands of the state. She presents these youths all as fully realized people, not victims. As they describe in their own voices their fight to maintain their humanity and protect their individuality in environments that would deny both, these young people offer a hopeful alternative to the doomed effort to reform a system that should only be dismantled.