A report by the Campaign for Youth Justice, which aims to end the practice of treating minors as adults in the justice system, examines the effects of placing youth under 18 in adult prisons. The report revealed a decreasing amount of youth in adult prisons but high rates of incarcerating young African Americans and various forms of abuse within prisons.
The report, released late in the week, states that between the years 2000 and 2013, the number of youth in adult prisons nationally decreased by 70 percent, from 5,000 to about 1,200. Still,as recently as 2012, 37 states held youth under 18 years of age in their adult prisons, and only five states have removed minors completely from their prison systems. Nine states, including New York and North Carolina, automatically place youth above a certain age but under 18 years old in the adult criminal justice system.
In Illinois, all youth under 17 years of age are committed to the Department of Juvenile Justice and the commitment “shall set a definite term,” according to statue 730 ILS 5/5-8-6.
“We’ve seen kids as young as 13 and 14 going to adult prisons,” Carmen Daugherty, CFYJ policy director.
There is a continued amount of both gender and racial disparity in what youth are sent to adult prisons. Despite being 17 percent of their age group in the overall population, African American youth make up 58 percent of youth committed to state prison. There are only approximately 50 women under 18 in adult prisons. Due to the small size of this group, many young women are placed in out-of-state jails that are large enough to separate youth and adults, in compliance with the Prison Rape Elimination Act.
PREA, passed in 2003, has played a role in reducing the number of youth in adult prisons by providing financial incentives for placing youth in juvenile facilities rather than adult prisons. It has also led to an increased amount of separation between adults and minors within adult prisons and now requires that youth live in a separate part of the prison and only visit adult common rooms with supervision.
Increased separation, however, has not been enough. Youth still have unsupervised interactions with adult inmates, Daugherty claims, especially when adults bring food to the younger inmates, providing opportunities for assault.
“These abuses happen very quickly and in places that [Department of Corrections] officers may not even know about,” Daugherty said. “It’s clear the interactions are still happening, and these abuse numbers are way too high.”
A recent report showed 75.5 percent of youth who reported sexual abuse were abused by a staff member and 65.5 percent of youth who reported were assaulted by another inmate.
Abuse is not the only challenge youth in adult prisons face.
Youth in prison are 77 percent more likely to become involved in prison rule violations. In order to ensure limited interaction between minors and adults, some prisons place youth in solitary confinement. Solitary confinement – a hot-button issue now with criminal justice reformers and politicians – has been linked to insomnia, anxiety, rage, self-harm, and suicidal thoughts, the CFYJ report states.
For youth in adult prisons, suicide is currently the leading cause of death, with suicide rates higher than those of their peers in the juvenile system.
“All the research indicates that youth placed in adult prisons are even more traumatized and harmed than youth kept in juvenile prisons,” said Elizabeth Clarke, founder and president of the Juvenile Justice Initiative.
Adult prisons also exclude youth from both educational and vocational opportunities – something that sets the state for rapid recidivism and hurts employment and other opportunities to engage society upon release instead of being a burden or drag on the economy.
Many youth do not have access to adequate education because they are treated as adults above 18 and not all prisons offer classes, yet vocational classes often come with age restrictions that minors are too young to meet. This leaves young inmates educationally disadvantaged upon their release.
Daugherty said this is because, unlike juvenile facilities, prisons were not intended as a rehabilitative state. They do not offer the same resources, especially in terms of education, to help inmates succeed in life after release. Youth transferred from juvenile court system to the adult prison system are 34 percent more likely to be arrested again.
“There is no prison that is built for youth,” she said. “There is no best practice for prisons to treat youth because youth do not belong in adult prisons.”