For Troubled Youth, Prison-like Settings do more Harm than Good

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Lizzie BuchenIn the early morning hours of May 11, 2011, while sleeping on his living room sofa, Jeffrey Hall’s son shot him dead from point-blank range. The killer had a long history of violence. He had stabbed several people, choked another with a telephone cord, and committed arson. Yet confining this person behind bars, as many want to do, is misguided, short-sighted, and destined to fail him and society due to one unusual fact. He was only 10 years old.

On Feb. 15, a Riverside County Juvenile Court Judge will decide the fate of this young boy, now aged 12. Some argue the only way to deal with such a severely troubled child is to send him to a correctional institution in the state’s Division of Juvenile Facilities (DJF). Although DJF has a sordid history, blighted by litigation over its appalling levels of violence and lack of rehabilitative services, proponents argue it is now safer and more humane than it was in the past. But no matter how much the system improves, DJF’s outmoded and deteriorating facilities will never be fit for children.

The institutions of DJF are prison-like correctional facilities, designed to efficiently confine a large number of people. The youth at O.H. Close Youth Correctional Facility, which confines the state’s youngest wards, reside in open dormitories, often with as many as 30 other youth, many of whom struggle with behavioral and mental health issues. Violence is endemic to this kind of housing. Older, stronger youth are known to exploit and victimize those who are weaker and more vulnerable, like this boy, who would be the youngest ward at DJF, and who, when arriving at juvenile hall, “was so little they didn’t have shoes to fit him,” according to the prosecuting attorney. The children at DJF are compelled to join gangs for protection.

The environment is particularly damaging for those with serious behavioral issues, like this young boy. Highly regimented, prison-like facilities are designed to contain delinquent behavior rather than address needs. Thus, violent or aggressive youth receive restrictions and punishment rather than therapy and support, compounding their problems.

Rehabilitation is difficult, if not impossible, if youth are in a chronic state of fear and defiance. According to 2010 data from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, more than 80 percent of the youth who have been confined in DJF are arrested again; many end up in adult prisons. DJF has little incentive to address this problem. Once a youth has completed his time, the division is relieved of any responsibility and returns him to his home county’s jurisdiction.

This boy suffered through a turbulent childhood, resulting in serious needs that will not be met by DJF. He suffered daily abuse from his father, who often punched and kicked him. He has psychological problems, including violent behaviors that began at 18 months of age,  likely resulting from his mother’s alcohol consumption during pregnancy. The boy regularly attended white supremacy rallies with his father, who was the regional leader for a national neo-Nazi organization. His parents were generally negligent, When the police arrived at his home after the murder, they noted the residence was “filthy and not sanitary,” “the bedrooms smelled like urine” and the “mattresses, pillows and blankets were stained and soiled.” According to the boy’s defense attorney, Child Protective Services had been called to the house 20 times.

What this boy needs is a safe and therapeutic environment focused on rehabilitation. Moreover, he needs a continuity of care and support that begins when he is in confinement, follows him through his treatment and custody, and remains with him when he reenters the community.

The judge can meet these needs by sending the boy to a secure residential treatment facility, or group home. Such facilities are located in the community, secured 24 hours per day, and offer intensive and individualized treatment from a broad assortment of community resources, including psychiatrists, social workers and counselors.

Group homes do not have the extreme violence and gang subculture of DJF, and offer a range of security levels, allowing youth to gradually step down to less restrictive settings as they improve. Staying in the community also allows youth to maintain contact with their families and develop other support systems, which will ease their eventual transitions back to the community.

Placing this young boy in DJF, where his mental and emotional health will continue to decline, and where he will live in constant fear of assault, will only traumatize him further. Wherever the judge decides to send this child, he will return to his community by the time he is 23 years old. Eleven years from now, what sort of man do we want to come home?