Bringing Down Youth Prisons and Building a Better Place

John Last 1I saw the movie Weeds in 1989. It was a “prison movie,” and I wasn’t particularly interested, but my friend Russell insisted that I watch it.

Honestly, I do not recall much of the plot, but one scene has remained in my memory ever since. Nick Nolte’s character, who starts an acting troop while serving a life sentence, speaks about visiting the ruins of an old prison.

“I saw a prison near Plymouth Rock, and it was overgrown with weeds … they sprang from every crack. Someday their roots will pry the walls apart. I won’t be around, but I saw them last summer, and they were in bloom,” he says.

This vision of the crumbling prison has been with me ever since. I have been fortunate enough to see several prisons close, and to see the beginnings of their destruction in the uncut weeds and crumbling bricks. It gives me a feeling of peace to imagine this happening to places where so much suffering has taken place.

This vision came to be again recently when I read about the governor of California, Jerry Brown, and his push to close the state run juvenile prisons by 2014. I like to imagine all of those places slowly disintegrating, being put to other uses that will better serve the people of that state. The California Division of Juvenile Justice has been in decline for some years. Its 1996 population was around 10,000. Now it is about 1,100. From a high point of eleven prisons, it is now three.

According to the Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice in San Francisco, serious youth crime is at its lowest point since they began gathering statistics in 1954. This latest blow is delivered courtesy of the continuing financial crisis that afflicts the state government. The high costs associated with the system were not enough to bring about good results. It is estimated that the annual cost of housing a juvenile offender in California is around $200,000. Even with this high price tag the system was notoriously abysmal. As reported in San Jose Mercury News the conditions in the youth prisons, with 23-hour lockdown, wire cages, and “brutal staff beatings” are well documented.

According to the San Francisco Chronicle there has been opposition from youth advocates, district attorneys, judges and probation chiefs. The main concerns have centered on what is going to happen when these facilities shut down. The governor’s proposal is to allocate $10 million to counties to develop plans to house youth locally. Some worry that treatment will be inconsistent, or that adult lock ups may be used more frequently. All of these issues need to be addressed, and the potential for problems will continue to exist. Most of the kids still locked up in these facilities are older, more violent, and often sex offenders. Many await transfer to adult facilities when they reach adulthood. Some are gang members, and most have suffered significant trauma in their short lives. Others suffer from mental illness.

This should not dissuade citizens and local governments though. By focusing on treating these kids in the way that they deserve, first as human beings, next as adolescents, good results are possible. Creating programs that meet security needs while also decreasing the prison atmosphere is one way to approach the problem. Barry Krisberg, the writer of the Chronicle piece, notes the success of Missouri’s juvenile facilities. There, officials have removed all semblance of prison, and have had a corresponding reduction in prison-like violence. Other successful models exist around the country.

With this opportunity at hand, real changes can be made in the current paradigm of treating children as miniature adults. The potential is huge, and the impact of this decision and what follows it will affect the entire country. Let’s hope that while these prisons slowly crumble to dust a new way will be growing, a way that keeps everyone safe and still treats kids as kids.