Confronting an Unseen Problem: Abuse and Its Long-Term Effects on Incarcerated Juveniles

Children and adolescents who find themselves in the juvenile justice system often come from backgrounds characterized by abuse. Recent studies indicate that once incarcerated, that trend is appallingly likely to continue. High rates of physical and sexual abuse of incarcerated youth have been reported across the American juvenile justice system. A study conducted out of the University of California, Riverside seeks to further examine the consequences of abuse while incarcerated. In “Victims Behind Bars: A Preliminary Study on Abuse During Juvenile Incarceration and Post-Release Social and Emotional Functioning,” researchers find high rates of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse among detained youth, with potentially serious long-term repercussions.

Researchers tracked 62 young adults who had been involved with the juvenile justice system in Southern California. While all were 18 at the time of the study, every member of the study had first been arrested as a minor, somewhere between nine and 17 years old. Researchers interviewed each participant according to a nine question survey they developed themselves, because there is no widespread, standardized test for abuse during juvenile incarceration. This in itself, the authors say, indicates the presence of gross inadequacies in the existing youth support systems and their ability to protect detainees.

The researchers looked to capture the extent of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse and neglect experienced by the participants. This abuse could have been inflicted by facility staff or by their incarcerated peers. Responses indicated whether the abuse was direct, witnessed, or vicarious (the participant heard about it happening to someone else), and participants had a chance to share additional thoughts and experiences. Many offered shocking details of their experiences while incarcerated. Although policy intends that juvenile detention facilities offer a closed, controlled, safe environment for youth moving through the juvenile justice system, answers to the authors’ survey questions describe an entirely different reality.

An alarming 96.8 percent of the youth surveyed had experienced at least one type of abuse during their incarceration. 77.4 percent experienced a direct form of abuse, including physical injury. One participant reported suffering broken bones at the hands of staff. Vicarious abuse was reported at far higher levels. The most common forms of direct abuse were the excessive use of solitary confinement and peer-to-peer physical assault between youth, that is, fights that were allowed to continue by facility staff. Psychological abuse of youth by staff was also widely reported. Staff behavior did not always indicate vindictiveness or apathy. The authors posit that in many cases, staff was legitimately ill equipped to appropriately respond to situations. Regardless of the cause of abuse by staff, however, these numbers paint an unacceptable picture of abuse as inevitable in the juvenile justice experience.

The effects of this abuse persist after release from detention, according to the study’s findings. Abuse endured during incarceration was associated with many other problems later on, including post-traumatic stress, depression symptoms, and criminal involvement, even when controlling for abuse prior to incarceration, gender, and the amount of time detained. Whether or not someone experienced abuse serves as an even better predictor of post-release problems than the length of time they spent incarcerated.

Since they are, by definition, closed-off environments, little has historically been known about treatment conditions in detention facilities and the safety of children and adolescents who pass through them. The authors acknowledge the limitations of the study, both in the size of the sample population and geographic area, but they argue that the overwhelming nature of the findings highlights a need for both expanded research and immediate reform.

There are two important takeaways for policy makers. First, policy makers must work to improve safety and eliminate abuse in the juvenile justice system. The authors argue that a more efficient reporting system would go a long way in helping to protect incarcerated youth. Second, efforts must be undertaken to properly train and improve the quality of the staff who run detention facilities, including equipping them with better de-escalation and trauma response methods to help them prevent, manage, and respond to abuse incidents.

The long-term effects of abuse suggested by the study warrant swift action to protect incarcerated youth in American facilities. The costs of allowing abuse to continue, the study suggests, do not end once youth have left the juvenile justice system for the last time and must be prevented.

Article Source: Carly B Dierkhising, Andrea Lane, Misaki N. Natsuaki, “Victims Behind Bars: A Preliminary Study on Abuse During Juvenile Incarceration and Post-Release Social and Emotional Functioning,” Psychology, Public Policy, and Law (Dec 2013). 

Feature Photo: cc/(Sebastian Niedlich)'
Matt Repka
Matt Repka is a staff writer for the Chicago Policy Review and is an MPP student at the Harris School of Public Policy. He is interested in education and urban policy. He has also been published in The Tufts Daily.

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