Inmates in Boston's South Bay House of Corrections REUTERS/Brian Snyder

The tragic story of Kalief Browder is instructive, and we should take away some important lessons about incarcerating teens.

A youth jail is set to be built in Baltimore that’s far smaller and less expensive than the one originally planned for the city. But many in Baltimore do not want a facility built for detaining arrested youth at all. And the tragic story of Kalief Browder is a compelling argument for putting an end to incarcerating teens.

Browder was 16 years old when he was committed to New York City’s infamous Rikers Island detention facility after police arrested him for an alleged robbery. This was a crime Browder vehemently denied committing and of which he was never convicted. However, as The New Yorker’s Jennifer Gonnerman has reported in her profiles of Browder and Rikers, the teenager ended up spending over one thousand days at the jail “waiting for a trial that never happened.”   

As an inmate, Browder suffered abuse from both staff guards and other inmates, which Gonnerman obtained video footage of and posted to The New Yorker’s website. Browder ended up spending three years at the jail, including months in solitary confinement. He tried to commit suicide more than once as an inmate, and after he was released in 2013. He took his life this past weekend by hanging himself in his mother’s house. Before his suicide, he had been treated and hospitalized for mental health problems.

Browder’s case is an illustration of why jailing youth is a bad idea: In too many cases, young people leave these facilities in far worse condition than when they went in. The Vera Institute of Justice released a report a few weeks ago about the many unaccounted-for costs that go into building these jails, and how those often sap city resources. Mental health is one category of such costs. But rarely considered are the costs to communities and families when detained youth re-enter society traumatized and damaged from their jail experiences.

We also fail to account for the fact that the possibility of suicide looms large from the moment young people enter these facilities. Lisa Boesky, a health professional for the National Institute of Corrections, writes in a guidance manual for working with confined youth that “all youth in custody should be viewed as at-risk for killing themselves,” given that most arrive with multiple suicide-risk factors compounded on top of “the stress of being detained or incarcerated.”

Boesky further explains:

Suicide is the leading cause of death among youth in confinement and is more common among incarcerated youth than those in the community. Death can seem like the only option to youth in custody who feel hopeless, alone, anxious, or depressed and who want to escape unbearable psychological pain, distressing circumstances, or dire futures. There are two types of staff that work directly with youth in custody: those who have encountered suicidal youth and those who will.

A study of youth in detention found one in ten had thought about killing themselves in the previous 6 months, and a little over one in ten had made an actual suicide attempt at some point in their lives, with many trying to kill themselves more than once. Fewer than half of the youth with recent suicidal thoughts had told anyone about them. Rates are likely even higher among youth who are deeper in the system—those who reside in longer-term juvenile justice facilities.

Despite this, Boesky writes that placing all youth inmates in suicide monitoring programs or in suicide-resistant rooms is “impractical and unrealistic.”

And still, youth jails are built—even though they offer little in terms of rehabilitation. Juvenile justice researchers Joyce Burrell and Jim Moeser write for NIC that “There is a growing body of research that confirms the potential and real harmful effects that result from removing a youth from his or her community to a confinement facility, even for a short time.” In researcher Edward P. Mulvey’s reportHighlights From Pathways to Desistance: A Longitudinal Study of Serious Adolescent Offenders,” he found that:

Incarceration may not be the most appropriate or effective option, even for many of the most serious adolescent offenders. Longer stays in juvenile facilities did not reduce reoffending; institutional placement even raised offending levels in those with the lowest level of offending.  

Rikers Island is one of the worst environments for detaining youth. This is the jail that rapper Kool G. Rap warned about in the late 1980s in the song “Rikers Island”: “They have a nice warm welcome for new inmates/ Razors and shanks, and sharp-edged plates/ Posses will devour, punks with power/ After the shower it’s rush hour.” Those lyrics basically narrate what’s depicted in the videos Gonnerman posted of Browder.

Last year, the Department of Justice upbraided New York City for the deplorable conditions it has allowed to fester at the jail. Investigators found that:

Adolescent inmates at Rikers are not adequately protected from harm, including serious physical harm from the rampant use of unnecessary and excessive force by DOC staff. In addition, adolescent inmates are not adequately protected from harm caused by violence inflicted by other inmates, including inmate-on-inmate fights. Indeed, we find that a deep-seated culture of violence is pervasive throughout the adolescent facilities at Rikers, and DOC staff routinely utilize force not as a last resort, but instead as a means to control the adolescent population and punish disorderly or disrespectful behavior. Moreover, DOC relies far too heavily on punitive segregation as a disciplinary measure, placing adolescent inmates—many of whom are mentally ill—in what amounts to solitary confinement at an alarming rate and for excessive periods of time.

Knowing all of this, the question for those looking to build more youth jails is whether they can do this while carrying the story of Browder, and many other youth whose stories have not been told, on their consciences.

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