Forced to kneel there for what turned out to be two weeks

Any time I want to make sure I’m not getting too optimistic about things, I pause to remember how shamingly far the US differs (always in the wrong direction) from all other developed countries on a whole slew of indices of national well-being or flourishing. Just off the top of my head, without taking to Google to find lists, there’s

  • infant mortality
  • maternal mortality
  • lack of universal health insurance
  • income inequality
  • wealth inequality
  • percentage of the population in prison
  • executions
  • violent crime
  • guns
  • debt

That’s a terrible list.

An item I wasn’t really aware of is the rate of juvenile incarceration. It’s off the fucking charts higher than any other developed country. How the scorching blood of shame rises to contemplate that fact.

There’s a new book on the subject by Nell Bernstein, Burning Down the House.

The American rate of juvenile incarceration is seven times that of Great Britain, and 18 times that of France. It costs, on average, $88,000 a year to keep a youth locked up — far more than the U.S. spends on a child’s education.

Think what an education a kid could get for 88k a year.

But the biggest problem with juvenile incarceration, author Nell Bernstein tells Fresh Air‘s Dave Davies, is that instead of helping troubled kids get their lives back on track, detention usually makes their problems worse, and sets them in the direction of more crime and self-destructive behavior.

“The greatest predictor of adult incarceration and adult criminality wasn’t gang involvement, wasn’t family issues, wasn’t delinquency itself,” Bernstein says. “The greatest predictor that a kid would grow up to be a criminal was being incarcerated in a juvenile facility.”

So we do a lot of it, more than other comparable countries. Brilliant. Just fucking brilliant.

A lot of them talked about being numb to fear, but some of that felt like leftover bravado to me, because the stories they told of what actually happened to them were so terrifying that I can’t believe that there wasn’t fear.

One young man described arriving at a new facility just as a fight broke out in the dormitory to which he had been assigned. And although he hadn’t been involved, his whole dorm was stripped to their boxers, handcuffed, chained together, taken to the gymnasium and forced to kneel there for what turned out to be two weeks. Is fear the right word for what you feel during an experience like that? I don’t know, because, again, he described his humanity draining out of him as he listened to the guards banter and tell jokes and just pass the time, as if these were something other than suffering human beings on the floor in front of them. …

It’s right up there with the Irish mother and baby homes and the industrial “schools” and the Magdalene laundries – only this is now, and it’s here in my country where I vote.



  1. stever says

    Preemptive incarceration is what it is. If all those boys weren’t safely locked up early, they would be out looking for jobs in a glutted labor market. If the jobs aren’t there, they would turn to crime. The historic solution to this problem is a war every generation or two. That burns off the surplus male population and keeps the money going ’round. Unfortunately, even warfare isn’t as labor-intensive as it used to be, so the school -> prison conveyor was developed.

  2. Jackie the wacky says

    Keep in mind that kids who runaway from abusive homes are incarcerated for the crime of trying to save their own lives.

    Baby jails (other people call them detention centers) offer fewer rights than adult jails. Kids simply do not have the same liberties as adults. It is commonly believed that the kids need to be broken down so that they’ll accept authority.

    When I was in elementary school there was a baby jail that we could see from the playground. All day long you could watch boys dig a large hole, push the dirt up a hill and dump it, then fill the wheelbarrow with large chunks of limestone and push them down the hill to fill the hole. When it was dug out and full of rocks, they would then take the rocks up the hill and start over.

    I was always told that those were “bad boys” and that they were dangerous. Maybe they were, but I cannot help but think that forced labor didn’t make them any better or safer.

  3. Al Dente says

    Think what an education a kid could get for 88k a year.

    To put this in prospective, it causes $60,000 per year for an undergraduate to go to Harvard.

  4. Jackie the wacky says

    From what I’ve seen, Ophelia, our mental health system for kids isn’t much better. I’ve seen kids with untreated broken bones come out of those “hospitals”. Kids aren’t sent there to get better. They are sent there to be out of the way until they are old enough to put in prison.

  5. says


    Not so. If you were correct, you’d see higher adult crime rates in the UK and France than you do in the US. The idea that men are inherently violent and criminal so you have to jail them or send them to war is rather warped. The same lack of opportunity faces young women (who also have to combat sexism to boot), but no one worries about them resorting to criminal behaviour.

  6. opposablethumbs says

    One of mine happened to have a very severe communication disorder from birth; speech and language development were somewhere off the charts of delayed and disordered. Not surprisingly, this meant several fuck-tonnes of difficulty with all manner of things – you sure as hell can’t learn social communication let alone academically in the usual way when language itself is a foreign language. (I can cope with talking about this now because – many years later – this now teenage person (still and forever communication-disordered – that does not go away) is about to go to uni (well, conservatoire). After many, many years of honestly gargantuan amounts of effort – on their part, as well as from others).
    Sorry for the partial derail, but what blows me away is how easily , how really really easily – with just a bit less support, a bit less privilege on my part as a parent with zero money but a lot of education, a bit less luck – this one of mine could have been in trouble, in a Pupil Referral Unit, from there to a Young Offender’s Institution. I remember what it was like when communication was impossible, when the frustration and anger at not being able to talk was coming out in what is so charmingly referred to as “challenging behaviour”.

    How many of these kids in the OP would be heading somewhere else now if they’d had half a chance? No guesses as to what proportion of them come from privileged backgrounds and what proportion from families struggling with deprivation. No guesses as to the relative proportions on race lines, either. 88 thousand a year? Jesus wept.

  7. brucegee1962 says

    But but but … don’t you people care about the jobs?

    That $80,000 goes to put bread on the tables of quite a few millionaires. If we change the system, what will happen to them?

  8. RJW says

    ” I pause to remember how shamingly far the US differs (always in the wrong direction) from all other developed countries”

    Yes, however convincing Americans that they’re not the world leader in human development is not easy, is it?
    I can remember the claim that the US had a more equitable income distribution because it was a republic! I pointed out that I could cite 6 monarchies in the OECD with more equal income distributions.

    Unfortunately, the toxic American neo-liberal ideology is exported to other Anglosphere countries.

  9. says

    A lot of the European countries some of us look at as examples also went through imperial phases and finally settled down to more politically sustainable lifestyles. The US hasn’t done that, because of its particularly virulent fusion of capitalism and imperialism – new markets must be opened to exploitation so that we can. uh, open new markets to exploitation. Eventually that will break down. The question is whether we’ll wind up with a new dark age or an awareness that economic imperialism is nearly as destabilizing as the purely military kind. The US is well on its way to ruining the global environment; the costs of preserving our “gains” will scale with their size; the empire is self-limiting. They all are, really.


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