The prison-industrial complex is a monster that uses a variety of tactics to feed itself. For adults, there’s the gamut of mandatory sentencing laws used as ‘tough on crime’ posturing to force people into prison for relatively minor offenses, often for long terms, and to land people in prison for life when too many offenses rack up. There are also, of course, the disparities in terms of who is arrested and prosecuted for crimes, and who is able to mount an effective defense to stay out of the prison system and avoid the problems that come along with a conviction, which can include disenfranchisement, trouble finding work, and difficulty finding housing.
Once adults enter the prison system, it can be hard to escape, because the prison system feeds itself. It’s very specifically not rehabilitative in nature and there’s no real effort to make prison a place where adult offenders can reform. Effectively, prisons create a revolving door situation, where the same people keep returning to their populations for longer and longer terms until they’re trapped forever. It’s a neat way to ensure a steady stream of ‘customers’ in an industry that is growing more profitable every year, with the rise of privatised prison facilities to take over for the government. Make no mistake, this is a capitalism-based model.
In the juvenile justice system, the story, as in the narrative that is presented, is very different. The claim is that juveniles enter a more rehabilitation-focused system that is intended to give them a second chance at life, so they can make something of their lives when they get out of prison and join the civilian population. There’s talk of programs to help prisoners earn equivalency certificates and get technical training, for example, so they can have a chance at getting jobs when they get out. Prisons for juvenile offenders are depicted much as the Victorian workhouse was to members of the public, a place for reform.
The truth is much different. As with adults, juveniles face the same profiling problems that plague the justice system as a whole. Youth of colour are more likely to be stopped and pursued by law enforcement, they are more likely to be prosecuted for crimes, courts are more likely to hand down tough sentences. These risks increase for trans and queer youth of colour, who experience high homelessness rates. Being homeless puts you at increased risk of being a victim of crime[1. And decreases your chances of having that crime taken seriously.], but it also increases the chances of being in a situation where you will come into contact with the justice system from the other side; when, say, you are working in the sex industry to survive and you are penalised for it.
Mentally ill youth also fall into the justice system, and when they do, they often don’t get out. The fact that family members of youth with mental illness are still specifically told to give their children up when they can’t access care is telling, and speaks to the lack of support for juveniles with severe mental illness. Many end up in prison because there is nowhere else to put them, and this is not an environment where they are going to be able to access treatment and services they might use to build better lives for themselves.
Once in the prison system, it is as difficult for juveniles to escape as it is for adults. Prison provides exposure to people and situations that are difficult to shake. And when you get out, you deal with the stigma of being a juvenile offender. Despite the fact that records are sealed, juveniles may still be dealing with parole officers and other limitations that make their situation obvious. Potential employers may be reluctant to hire them in the belief that they are irredeemable, while schools reject them as too much of a risk.
The end result can be a push right back into crime, and into crimes that escalate over time with increasing desperation. Increasing encounters with the system and with law enforcement, including encounters that turn violent and dangerous. And time in prison, again and again, until the juvenile is an adult and can be subjected to even harsher sentences. And, once an adult, the attitude that there is no hope left so the focus should be on punishment means that few opportunities at a second chance are going to be made available. The prison system has neatly created a new ‘incurable offender’ for itself.
This gaping maw, the prison system, doesn’t chew people up and spit them out when it’s done with them, because it is never done. It chews people down and swallows them, making it virtually impossible to get out. Prison is justified as a necessary thing to protect the interests of members of the public, to maintain order, to keep people safe, but these considerations are not extended to prisoners, who are pushed into dangerous and desperate situations by a ‘justice system’ that is explicitly penal in nature.
The goal here is not to build a better world. It is to punish people. And as long as this remains the fundamental premise of the prison system and the reason people are sent through the courts, nothing is going to change. For juveniles, the broken system farms the next generation, all behind cinderblock walls and claims that it’s for their own good and the system will result in rehabilitation and a chance at a new life, at reform, at an opportunity to make good. It’s all lies, a house of cards that would collapse easily enough if pushed, but very few people seem willing to push it.