By Dylan Deprey
In 2002, the United States Department of Justice released its investigation into Mississippi’s youth prisons, otherwise known as “training facilities.”
The report revealed the barbaric treatment youth, as young as 11-years-old, endured in the prison. Juveniles were beat, strip searched and confined to a dark room with only a hole for a toilet, and that was just a taste of the many issues plaguing the facility.
Rounding the new millennium, 53 percent of imprisoned youth in New York were in for a misdemeanor, and 100 percent were younger than 16 when they committed the offense.
In a Louisiana “virtually every child . . . responded that they would like the guards to stop hitting them and that they would like more food.”
The stories and statistics sound eerily similar to the countless headlines regarding Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake School in Irma, WI.
Unlike the its counterparts scattered across the country, Lincoln Hills has not closed its doors.
The youth prison reform advocacy group the Youth First Initiative released a new report, “Breaking Down the Walls,” on March 10, 2017. The report was an activist’s playbook that highlighted the achievements youth, families, and advocates used for the reform and removal of juvenile prisons in six states.
The strategies in the report were based on public documents, and conversations with youth and family in the communities in: California, New York, Louisiana, Texas, Washington D.C. and Mississippi.
“Working alongside young people, their families, community groups, and elected officials to close down the juvenile prison in Mississippi was the most difficult, inspiring, rewarding work I’ve ever been engaged in. The strength of the young people who survived unspeakable abuse at the hands of the state but who were willing to tell their stories over and over kept us going when we felt exhausted and beat down,” said Sheila Bedi in the report.
The report shared hard fought decade long battles for change like Louisiana’s Close Talulah Now! campaign, and New York’s No More Youth Jails & Empty Beds, Wasted Dollars campaign.
The report states that juvenile prisons are often called reform schools or detention centers but according to Youth First Initiative’s National Field Director Mishi Faruquee that is not entirely true.
“I don’t think people know that youth prisons are basically mirror images of adult prisons,” Faruquee said. “We don’t recognize that young people are objected to the same type of harmful practices in adult prison.”
She added that youth need positive relationships to be successful in their community, and instead, prison provides a negative way to cope with issues that may not tackle the root.
The report shared critical lessons learned from successful campaigns to close youth prisons. It stated that successful campaigns were often multi-year efforts, that usually got worse before they got better.
“My advice to family members is to remember that it is a long process. But if you have consistency, you can achieve real progress. Being involved with the Books Not Bars campaign was like a lifeline for me. I was in a lot pain; joining the campaign helped me through it. I learned that it is a slow flight, an uphill fight, but a fight worth doing,” said LaNita Mitchell in the report.
In California, during the mid-1990’s, there was an incarcerated youth population near 10,000, and in July of 2016 the population dropped was down to 680.
The report also gave tips including: giving youth and family leadership in the prison reform process, addressing racial injustices, embracing diversity while planning for conflict and engaging local stakeholders for statewide reform.
Faruquee said that there are alternative community programs that can replace prison time for youth in the community.
“These community alternative incarceration programs are about building positive relationships and connecting people to the opportunities to build their skills, so they can be more employable,” Faruquee said.
Faruquee added that some programs hire community members and those who have gone through the criminal justice system to aide youth through twists and turns of life.
“Young people in prison are eventually going to come back home. If there are issues in their family or community, then locking them up in prison isn’t going to give them the tools and resources to address the challenges,” Faruquee said.
To read “Breaking Down Walls” visit http://www.youthfirstinitiative.org/