Briefly Noted: ‘ Burning Down the House’

burningdownhouseA September 16 2014 interview with author Nell Bernstein in The Awl (“The Case for Abolishing Juvenile Prisons”) begins with this overview:

“Last month, archaeologists identified the first of the fifty-five human bodies recently exhumed at Florida’s Dozier School for Boys—a now-shuttered juvenile prison where, for decades, guards abused children, sometimes to death, despite cyclical scandals and calls for reform spanning almost a hundred years. Dozier represents an atrocious extreme, but the failures of America’s juvenile justice system are widespread. Whether labeled ‘boot camps,’ ‘training schools,’ ‘reformatories,’ or other euphemisms, juvenile prisons have long harbored pervasive physical and sexual abuse. In one survey, twelve percent of incarcerated youth reported being sexually abused in the previous year—a figure that likely understates the problem.”

Since so-called juvenile delinquents from my north Florida high school were purportedly sent to this school, I reported on several books about “The White House Boys” in an earlier post. I found the interview with the author of Burning Down the House perceptive, compassionate and fascinating, and wanted to mention her book here for those who wonder about how we handle juvenile offenders, especially those charged with relatively minor misdeeds.

From the Interview: “I tried to come in with a reporter’s open mind. But I have known kids who’ve been in this system for decades, so I did come in believing, from my own experience, that prison was a consistently damaging intervention that tended to make things worse for kids rather than better.”

Bernstein - click on the photo to see the author's website
Bernstein – click on the photo to see the author’s website

From the Publisher When teenagers scuffle during a basketball game, they are typically benched. But when Will got into it on the court, he and his rival were sprayed in the face at close range by a chemical similar to Mace, denied a shower for twenty-four hours, and then locked in solitary confinement for a month.

One in three American children will be arrested by the time they are twenty-three, and many will spend time locked inside horrific detention centers that defy everything we know about how to rehabilitate young offenders. In a clear-eyed indictment of the juvenile justice system run amok, award-winning journalist Nell Bernstein shows that there is no right way to lock up a child. The very act of isolation denies delinquent children the thing that is most essential to their growth and rehabilitation: positive relationships with caring adults.

Bernstein introduces us to youth across the nation who have suffered violence and psychological torture at the hands of the state. She presents these youths all as fully realized people, not victims. As they describe in their own voices their fight to maintain their humanity and protect their individuality in environments that would deny both, these young people offer a hopeful alternative to the doomed effort to reform a system that should only be dismantled.

For those who know about The White House boys, and other young people sent to abusive camps and schools, the interview and the book are haunting. If only such things had been said 50 to 100 years ago.