Incarcerating anyone shouldn’t be a for-profit business, strictly speaking, but the rising market in youth incarceration is particularly disturbing. As the Southern Poverty Law Center pointed out in investigations conducted last year, there are some special concerns with incarcerated youth, and it’s disturbing to see the number of youth in prison on the rise. Particularly when those prisons aren’t serving the needs of young prisoners; not as people with medical and social issues, not as people with the potential for rehabilitation, not as human beings with the right to be safe from assault. The shifts we have allowed to take place in the prison system have created a monster that devours youth offenders alive.
Thanks to a lawsuit, conditions at one such facility, the Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility in Mississippi, came to brutal light; the SPLC was instrumental in conducting an investigation to delve into life for inmates at the facility, and the judge in the case was appalled by the evidence provided. A world in which inmates routinely fought, sometimes acquiring serious injuries, in which isolation in solitary confinement was disturbingly common as a punishment, in which guards used brutality to control inmates, punishing them for even the most minor of infractions. Denial of food and medical care.
And, of course, sexual assault. Guards assault prisoners, and prisoners assault each other. The judge noted that administrators and the parent company regarded the epidemic of rapes and sexual assaults with ‘deliberate indifference.’ To be imprisoned in such a facility would be a special kind of hell, transporting you into a place where everyone represents a potential danger, and you learn nothing from your time in prison other than violence; either how to engage in it, or how to defend yourself as best you can. If you’re lucky, you get out alive, but that doesn’t hold true for all prisoners; the facility had an astoundingly high number of inmates on suicide watch, along with several successful suicide attempts.
Conditions at a rogue juvenile correction facility? Not so much. This is only one among many companies taking advantage of the privatisation trend in the prison system, which extends to both adult and juvenile facilities. Promising big savings to individual states as well as relief from the hassle of managing corrections, these firms move in to take over prisons, applying standardised systems spanning multiple facilities. Yet, the services they provide fall woefully short of the mark, as even a superficial investigation reveals; there are not enough guards to keep the facility safe, the quality of the food is poor, prisoners struggle to access health care, solitary confinement is used as a tool for punishment and control, and prisoners are deprived of access to promised services like educational mentoring.
At juvenile institutions, these problems are particularly acute. While those who favour incarceration as a tool for managing social issues seem to believe adults convicted of crimes are irredeemable and should be locked away without a key, many have a different thinking when it comes to children and teens, wondering if there’s a possibility for rehabilitation there. If, instead of being solely for punishment, juvenile facilities should include elements of opportunities for reform, allowing inmates to develop life skills, network with people on the outside who can mentor them, and take other steps to reduce the risk of recidivism when they leave prison.
The fundamental belief that children have promise even if they’ve been subjected to harsh conditions or led astray is not uncommon in Western thought, and it holds true in the approach to the juvenile justice system, which on the surface is supposed to be about reform. Though this isn’t often borne out in the actions of administrators, guards, and policymakers, it’s there as a stated goal, lurking below the surface of the management of juvenile facilities.
Except when it comes to private firms managing juvenile incarceration facilities; because they’re interested in making money, not offering opportunities for rehabilitation, and anything that doesn’t serve this goal is thrown out. That means pushing the maximum age of prisoners up, housing people in their twenties alongside children and teens, despite the fact that this puts juvenile inmates at risk. It includes crowding prisons to pack in as many people as possible, for the purpose of maximising profits. And it includes cost-cutting right and left to ensure that as much money as possible reaches the hands of shareholders, administrators, and owners.
Most chillingly of all, the for-profit prison industry has a vested interest in harsher sentencing and isn’t afraid of being transparent about it. It speaks of ‘disturbing trends’ like early release and reforms to sentencing laws to make them more humane, and actively lobbies against measures intended to improve the health and safety of inmates, let alone promote rehabilitation. When your business is incarceration, rehabilitation runs utterly opposite to what you want. You want more recidivism, because you want more repeat business at your facilities. These gross facts are skimmed over by states promoting more for-profit management of their prison facilities, and they’re rarely challenged in evaluations of what these firms actually do with their inmates.
For children trapped in the juvenile justice system, there are already tremendous inequalities stacked against them. The brutal conditions inside state-run facilities are already distressing enough, and they’re even more acute in for-profit facilities where each prisoner represents a tiny cash register, and nothing else; there is no incentive to rehabilitate here, no reason to provide skills training or community mentoring, no reason to treat prisoners as human beings. They are simply sides of meat working their way slowly through the system, and the prison’s gaping maw licks its chops at the thought that these sides of meat might loop back and make their way through the system all over again.