1880 S Dairy Ashford Rd, Suite 650, Houston, TX 77077

Locked Up and Locked Out: The Devastating Effects of Juvenile Incarceration

Nearly 60,000 adolescents are incarcerated in the United States on any given day. These youth face isolation, abuse, and grossly inadequate rehabilitation services. They struggle with mental health disorders, substance abuse, and behavioral issues yet rarely receive desperately needed help.

Left to the cruelty of “the system,” these juveniles are disconnected from their communities and experience high recidivism rates. Exacerbating the problem is that for-profit prison systems are incentivized to keep kids overmedicated, over-prosecuted, and behind bars.

Juvenile Justice Impact supports local organizations with the research and resources they need to make a real difference and turn these kids’ lives around before they are locked up.

Dr. Susan Feneck has dedicated her career to exposing what goes on behind bars in the juvenile justice system. Her efforts are starting to crack open the reality of youth incarceration in this country and instigate real, lasting change.

The School to Prison Pipeline

The United States locks up more youth under age 18 than any other nation. We spend millions every year to keep kids behind bars—but at what cost to society?

These children and teens suffer a lifetime of negative effects, including higher dropout rates, limited work potential, and long-term social problems such as addiction, homelessness, and re-incarceration.

Contrary to popular belief, most young people are not behind bars for violent first offenses. Instead, their crimes are often non-violent and include theft, vandalism, disorderly conduct, and marijuana possession. Yet the decision to prosecute a child as an adult is left to the discretion of the prosecutor or judge, often resulting in harsher punishments.

Those at higher risk of heavier sentences include children of color, those from impoverished backgrounds and/or dysfunctional families, kids with learning disabilities, and young people who identify as LGBTQ+.

This pattern begins in school, resulting in what’s known as the “school to prison pipeline.” This is when schools criminalize minor infractions under a zero-tolerance policy that often results in kids being exposed to the criminal justice system at a young age. They are labeled as juvenile delinquents and are set up for failure before their lives even begin. Once in the pipeline, it’s an uphill battle to receive the education, support, and services they need to succeed. This leads to recidivism, a lifetime of crime, addiction, social instability, and poverty.

Systematic Trauma, Abuse, and Over-Medication

In her tenure as the child psychologist for the Erie County Department of Forensic Mental Health, Dr. Feneck worked with children and teens in the local foster care and juvenile justice systems. She witnessed firsthand many of the dire circumstances described here.

Dr. Feneck will never forget one teenager she counseled named Josh.

Josh was serving time in a non-secure facility for non-violent crimes. He was scheduled to go home within the next 48 hours – but first, he was forced to transfer to a secure local facility, which housed young people who had committed more serious crimes. Josh’s transfer came about simply because the administration needed to fill the open bed space.

Surrounded by razor wire, trapped in an intimidating atmosphere, and locked in a cement cell, Josh was terrified and alone. Thinking he was starting over and never going home, he tragically died by suicide in his cell that first night.

Josh is just one victim of the rampant abuses and over-punishment of today’s youth. His case shines a spotlight on one ugly factor that aggravates this mass incarceration: the increasing prevalence of for-profit facilities that need to fill beds to stay profitable.

“If the beds aren’t filled, we don’t get paid.”

Dr. Feneck has seen first hand the overmedication of pharmaceuticals in youth for years.  She told me a nurse at one of the facilities she was present at said quite frankly, “If we don’t overmedicate and over-violate, we don’t get a check.”  The abuse of and overmedicating these youth is criminal in and of itself.  Are we turning our youth into drug addicts?

Unlawful Restraints and Abuse

Imagine a child who weighs around 100 pounds being restrained by one, two, or even more full-grown adults. Physical and mechanical restraints – such as holding down and handcuffing – have directly caused 79 fatalities in youth out-of-home care settings such as psychiatric care centers and juvenile detention facilities.

These restraints should only be used in an emergency situation when the child is in imminent danger of causing harm to themselves or another person, but they are more often used improperly as a form of punishment or control. Staff may not be aware of underlying psychological or medical histories before executing a restraint, or they are under-trained in behavior management. Unlawful physical restraints are a common occurrence in secure confinement centers for youth across the country.

Kids have died from asphyxiation, cardiac arrest, suffocation, and exertion when being held improperly or for too long of a period of time. Those with asthma are particularly at risk.

Other forms of violence that are all-too-common in U.S. youth detention facilities include physical and sexual abuse at the hands of staff or their incarcerated peers.

Inadequate Mental Health Care

Not all kids with mental health issues are ending up behind bars,  but those who are incarcerated experience these disorders at a disproportionate rate. Studies show that 50-75% of youth who are in the juvenile justice system have a diagnosable mental health problem. In contrast, less than 23% of children in the United States under age 18, as a whole, are suffering from a mental health concern.

The top issues among incarcerated youth include substance abuse, addictive disorders, bipolar disorders, depression, anxiety, OCD, trauma or stress-related disorders such as PTSD, impulse control disorders, neurodevelopmental disorders – including intellectual disabilities, ADD/ADHD, autism, and mood disorders.

Even worse, being in the juvenile justice system exacerbates many existing mental health problems. Treatment is not guaranteed, and many punishments (such as solitary confinement) worsen mental health problems. Minority youth and boys are less likely to receive the mental health intervention they need while locked up.

Over-Prescribing Drugs

While more than half of incarcerated youth do have mental health concerns, medication is not required for every disorder. Yet just like in the anecdote described by Dr. Feneck, drugs are commonly used as a form of behavior control in many of these centers.

With general diagnoses such as “behavior problems,” kids are drugged into behaving. This “chemical restraint” tactic allows staff to induce sleep and/or reduce aggression among the youth in their care. These children are receiving mood-altering psychiatric medications at high rates, with devastating long-term effects.

Kids receiving these tranquilizing drugs on a regular basis often experience weight gain, diabetes, metabolic syndromes, cardiovascular problems, brain shrinkage, and even a shorter lifespan.

Anti-depressants are also commonly prescribed, despite the fact that the side effects of drugs like Prozac and Paxil often include suicidal behaviors in young people.

Solitary Confinement

Restrictive housing and solitary confinement are used in juvenile correctional facilities across the country. This means physical and social isolation within a confined space, such as a jail cell, for 22-24 hours per day.

Solitary confinement can have serious negative consequences, including a drastic impact on mental health, among people of any age, but especially in youth. Studies show that it causes psychological, physical, and developmental harm, worsens mental health problems, and increases the risk of suicidal ideation and behavior.

Youth who are subjected to solitary confinement are simultaneously deprived of their access to medical and mental health treatment as well as educational programming.

Denial of Education

When schools aren’t equipped to handle children with behavioral problems, and those kids end up in the juvenile justice system, their access to education is severely curtailed. Even though detention centers are required by law to provide an education, the evidence shows that this education is woefully inadequate and plagued with poor staffing and low expectations.

There is rarely time to complete homework in a quiet environment, and students aren’t always allowed to bring their study materials into their cells. Kids are sometimes restrained within classrooms, and access to tutoring and extra support is often nonexistent.

Learning while detained is even more difficult for kids who are English Language Learners, have individual learning plans (IEPs), and/or have learning disabilities. Even for those who normally perform at an average academic level, their education is almost always interrupted. When they return to regular school after being released, they usually find themselves behind their peers.

Long-Term Effects of Youth Incarceration

Researchers have found that spending time behind bars before age 18 has long-term negative consequences.

Lack of education: On average, 16% of youth in the juvenile justice system will drop out of school within five months of their release. Kids with a juvenile criminal record are much less likely to attend college than their peers.

Difficulty finding work: Between their educational gaps and criminal record, they often struggle to find good work opportunities. The secured detention center environment also hinders healthy personal development, which impacts the ability to be a productive employee.

Increased risk of recidivism: Kids who are incarcerated are 70% more likely to offend again by age 25, and their crimes are likely to be more serious, carrying longer punishment periods. Studies have found that even after a short imprisonment time (3 months), individuals experienced reduced self-control and increased rates of risk-taking. This explains why those released from an incarceration period have weakened their ability to lead a lawful lifestyle and are so prone to recidivism.

Exposure to a negative environment: When troubled youths are grouped together, their negative behaviors are more likely to worsen.

Reversing the Devastating Trend

These problems aren’t new, and they aren’t hidden. Studies show that community-based programming can cause a huge culture shift and reverse this troubling trend of youth incarceration.

In fact, thanks to tireless advocacy efforts, improvements have been made in many U.S. communities. These towns, cities, and counties have realized that when youth have access to diversionary programs, they are much less likely to re-offend or escalate their criminal behavior.

“If you change a home, you can change a neighborhood, and you can change the city,” is Dr. Feneck’s mantra.

Protective factors can help prevent criminal activity from ever occurring. These include:

  • Positive attitudes, values, and beliefs
  • Conflict resolution skills
  • Good mental, physical, spiritual and emotional health
  • Positive self-esteem
  • Success at school
  • Good parenting skills
  • Parental supervision
  • Strong social supports
  • Community engagement
  • Problem-solving skills
  • Positive adult role models, coaches, mentors
  • Healthy prenatal and early childhood development
  • Participation in traditional healing and cultural activities
  • Good peer group/friends
  • Steady employment
  • Stable housing
  • Availability of services (social, recreational, cultural, etc.)

Some young people will still commit crimes even when these factors are in place. But there are certainly healthy alternatives to detention facilities; it just takes a commitment to not defaulting to the “easy way out.”

When communities come together to tackle the youth incarceration problem, aligned with all levels of the justice system and grassroots efforts, programming can be developed as an alternative during the sentencing phase of a court case. Expedited case processing for youth crimes should also become the norm to minimize the time kids spend behind bars.

Prosecutors and judges can also employ special consideration for cases involving technical violations to reduce the number of youth locked up for minor infractions.

Finally, when secure confinement is the only option, communities can take special care to ensure that these children are treated with compassion and humanity.

The Juvenile Justice Impact

While working at the Erie County Youth Detention Facility, Dr. Feneck was a pioneer in making substantial changes and facilitating the passage of numerous county and statewide initiatives to improve conditions and support systems. She and her team completely turned the facility around, transforming the outcome for countless children.

Dr. Feneck is now working on a screenplay, “Jumpsuit Shackle,” a film that focuses on the treatment of youth in the U.S. juvenile justice system, including the physical, emotional, and pharmaceutical abuses she witnessed firsthand. Her work as a speaker, organizer, educator, and advocate led to the founding of the Juvenile Justice Impact (JJI) and continues to impact countless lives through her empowerment efforts.

JJI has engaged in many high-impact events and initiatives in recent years, including:

  • Sex Trafficking Forum at City Hall
  • For the Love of Our Youth Event
  • Conservation Cleanup
  • Fundraiser Fashion Show
  • Scholarships to like-minded community organizations
  • Youth Boot Camp
  • Youth Family Festival
  • Fundraising Gala
  • Podcast
  • Collaboration with the Dream Program

Donations are always welcomed at JJI to support the many programs it initiates and funds. But anyone can make a difference in their local community beyond the dollars. Seek out local youth organizations, volunteer with young people, learn about the local justice system, and get involved with local politics. The future of our youth depends on it.