Forgotten, abandoned and broken, the youth trapped in America’s juvenile detention and youth development centers are products of a failed education system that leaves adolescents worse than before they were locked up.
The number of incarcerated juveniles has steadily risen alongside rates of youth recidivism. Especially relevant to juveniles in detention centers, the youth is susceptible to a perpetuating cycle of prison stays.
The shoddy education standards prevent the juvenile’s success once released. This results in academic lag and failure to reintegrate, eventually ending the youth back into juvenile facilities or worse.
The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLBA) mandates that federally funded state correctional facilities must offer education services on par with public schools. Although a strong attempt, its enactment has not produced the expected results.
With no external mandate or supervision, the NCLBA has failed to provide a basic education to at risk youth and raise schooling standards in these affected facilities.
Joseph Gagnon, an associate professor of special education at the University of Florida, addresses the lack of quality education in juvenile detention centers, commonly known as “juvie”. In his journal, Juvenile Correctional (JC) Schools: Characteristics and Approaches to Curriculum, he focuses on the educational, behavioral, and social deterioration of America’s juvenile prisons.
Gagnon said the current education structure is a completely broken system; the lack of intervention and supervision in nationwide JC schools neglects to hold anyone accountable while kids slip through the cracks.
“It’s a system of malaise where everybody gets used to not doing anything,” Gagnon said. “But what if your own kid was here, then you’d want them to have the same education as everyone else.”
He highlighted the poor learning environment evident in almost all education facilities. The lack of current curriculum, sufficient textbooks and experienced teachers and principals puts students and administrators in unrealistic situations.
Gagnon added that the educators working in these facilities are often unqualified, understaffed, and lack a general interest in the well-being of these kids. Even in JC schools with motivated instructors, it is naive to believe that one teacher can lecture on several different subjects to juveniles of varying ages simultaneously, according to Gagnon.
The lack of a general curriculum subjects students to completing mindless worksheets in the vain hope they actually learn something.
“Don’t give up on us, we’re 15 years old, we did something bad, we did something stupid, we have our whole life ahead of us,” Gagnon quoted as the popular sentiment among youth currently in the system.
He argues that the most viable option to improve the current system without increasing state and federal spending starts with implementing a general plan based on public schools. His strategy has each JC school focusing on certifying their educators and establishing a curriculum that aligns with their state’s public schools.
The facilities with the strongest programs are composed of dynamic teachers that work at the individual level to enact change. The best way to advocate for these youth is to “humanize them,” said Gagnon.
One study, published by the ThinkProgress Organization, found that an overwhelming 67 percent of youth offenders were more likely to be incarcerated (again) by age 25 compared to those who didn’t go to juvenile prison.
Justin Billingslea, a former inmate of New Hanover Correctional Center, said that his time spent in prison was “an eye opening experience.”
Billingslea, 20, has never been incarcerated in a youth facility, but has many friends from his hometown of Wilmington, North Carolina, who are currently in juvie.
Billingslea has personally experienced the effects of the inadequacies in juvenile prison education as members from his community return from juvie more broken than before.
One friend, who wishes to remain anonymous, was incarcerated into C.A. Dillon Youth Development Center in Butner, North Carolina. He entered the system at 14 years old and was released three years later. Upon re-enrollment in New Hanover County schools, he was placed in freshman level classes as a 17-year-old while most students his age were two years above him.
Billingslea said his friend eventually dropped out because he couldn’t keep up with academic demands and is now incarcerated in adult prison.
“It just leaves you with no resort so you’re back doing something dumb and they just lock you up again,” he said.
Instead of providing juvenile inmates with a quality education to give them a fair shot at integrating back into normal society, JC schools inhibit their growth. Their time spent in prison fails to educate them according to state standards, which encourages the cycle of dropping out of school and committing crimes that put them back behind bars.
Kimberly Thielbar, author of Education in Juvenile Detention Centers Report and a lawyer at Prairie State Legal Services, evaluated the main population in juvenile detention. She found that the youth are “disproportionately male, minority, poor and disabled.”
Thielbar said that a large percentage of youth in juvenile detention centers meet criteria for at least one psychiatric disorder that would qualify them for special education services. Properly educating students with disabilities is hard enough in public schools and is nearly impossible in JC schools.
“Many teachers in correctional education facilities are not special education certified,” she said.
Delinquent youth with learning disabilities are at an especially high risk of falling behind in JC facilities.
To combat this, Thielbar proposed a screening process for all youth entering correctional facilities to identify those in need of extra services. Inmates would take baseline education tests to check for disabilities and mark education levels. These evaluations would also be used as benchmarks to track progress.
The importance of education for juvenile delinquents is paramount for their success in the outside world, yet the current education system is proven to consistently fail. Gagnon suggests that these adolescents are kids who simply made mistakes and deserve the right to a fair shot at life.
Reconstructing the education system in juvenile prisons is the best way to provide troubled youth with the fundamentals to become a functioning member of society as an adult.