In the past two decades, there has been an increasing interest in the linkages between schools and carceral settings, or what has been termed, the “school to prison pipeline.” Much writing and activism around this topic has focused on severing those linkages in the K-12 context, often overlooking the other end of the pipeline (prison).
Nationally, about 43,580 youth are in some kind of carceral setting on a given day. In California, the number for a given day is about 5,463 youths, with Los Angeles County responsible for about 870 youths, making it the largest incarcerator of juveniles in the country. More recently, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, L.A. County and other municipalities have been cutting back on the populations of juvenile camps and halls.
This momentum, combined with the rising wave of energy to defund the police in favor of social services, cements the case that the time has come to abolish youth prisons and unlock the full potential of our marginalized youth.
Youth prison abolition, like the larger movement for prison abolition, will surely be met with a great deal of skepticism from a large segment of the American public. The truth is, we as Americans have grown accustomed to locking up other people’s children. The United States has been holding so-called delinquent children captive since at least 1825, when the New York House of Refuge was opened to house troubled youth.
Proponents of these and similar initiatives believed them to be diversion programs that reformed youth and kept them from adult institutions. It did not take long, however, for sites like the House of Refuge to realize it was profitable to lock up and punish young people. As lawyer Nell Bernstein has noted in her book, the House of Refuge began with nine youth and by 1860, had 560 youth, some as young as 8. Moreover, Bernstein also noted that the House of Refuge preyed on immigrant communities to find their child offenders.
I have spent considerable time at two of the county’s juvenile camps. During my research, I did meet many dedicated educators and caring probation staff. Nevertheless, neither I nor the youth I met could ever lose sight of the fact that the young people were being held against their will. Consider one example when I was observing a lesson in a camp classroom and a probation officer (PO) stepped in to cover for a teacher:
PO: “Another good day in probation.”
Student 1: “Another day in incarceration.”
Student 2: “We are incarcerated. I can’t walk up outta here.”
PO: “You are on vacation from all the foolishness. If you have a grievance, you fill out a form, you say what you need and you document it. Then they will have to take care of it.”
Having witnessed this moment early on in my research at the two camp sites, I was taken aback by the students’ explicit naming of their incarcerated status. Up until then, the adults I had met seemingly did all they could to avoid naming the students’ situation as such; instead, they talked about students having a “five- to seven-month camp program” or in the case of the PO mentioned above, described the students as being “on vacation from all the foolishness.” This despite the prison-like architecture of the camps, from gates to guards to posted warnings of roaming rattle snakes.
Youth incarceration is less like a fun vacation and more like a forced evacuation. All the youth I met across both camps were youth of color and the vast majority came from communities like South Central Los Angeles, an area long over-policed and underserved. In the case of South Central youth, it is true that many had greater access to mental health services, general healthcare, and arts programming while in camp compared to outside of camp. But the question we should ask, is why do these children have to suffer the trauma of incarceration in order to gain access to services all children need? Better yet, why can’t the funds, services and staff be deployed directly to the children’s home communities?
A PO that I interviewed admitted as much when we talked about the challenges youth face when they re-enter their disinvested home communities. In part, he told me:
“[W]hen you drive through these neighborhoods, like I speak to my field POs, you go through these neighborhoods that are literally like Hunger Games. […] As long as all the crime, all the murders, are taking place in this area, and you leave the capitol alone? You can do whatever you damn well please.”
The comparison to the dystopian world of the Hunger Games should be alarming for anyone who cares about racial equity in the United States. The amount of governmental abandonment and abuse of low-income communities of color simply cannot continue. And in the case of our marginalized youth of color, we must shift, as sociologist Victor Rios argues, from a “youth control complex” to a “youth support complex.” The latter, which Rios defines as a “ubiquitous system of supports that nurtures and reintegrates young people placed at risk,” offers a vision municipalities across the nation should get behind.
Moving forward, we must understand that abolitionism is an inherently creative process concerned with more than simply closing facilities. Abolitionism seeks to imagine and work towards a more just and humane society. Examples already exist for how communities are repurposing closed juvenile facilities to better serve communities. There are also moves to retrain probation staff so that they can deliver the kind of truly restorative services that inspired some of them to work with incarcerated youth in the first place. Such efforts with youth prisons provide a blueprint that can guide the ongoing campaign to redistribute funds away from police to necessary social services.
Julio Angel Alicea is a former public school teacher and current doctoral candidate in urban schooling at the University of California, Los Angeles, where his dissertation research focuses on the politics and pedagogies of race and place in South Central Los Angeles.