Placement of Children in Adult Jails and Prisons Is Challenged


This year Alabama Governor Bentley signed a law prohibiting the practice of housing children in the same cell with adults or housing children in solitary confinement. EJI urges swift enforcement of the new legislation.

In June, the U.S. Justice Department opened an investigation in Alabama about juveniles being housed with adult detainees, being victims of sexual abuse, and being held for months in solitary isolation.

“Isolation—particularly the prolonged and restrictive lockdown alleged in Jefferson County—can lead to paranoia, anxiety, depression and suicide, and exacerbate pre-existing psychological harms,” said Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. The 2012 Report of the Attorney General’s National Task Force on Children Exposed to Violence concluded that “nowhere is the damaging impact of incarceration on vulnerable children more obvious than when it involves solitary confinement.”

The United States is almost alone among developed nations in incarcerating children under 18 years old with adult inmates in adult jails and prisons.

A recent in-depth investigative report from theHuffington Post Highline reveals the horrific results of this abusive practice.

In the 1980s and 1990s, overblown fears of a coming juvenile crime wave led many states to make it easier to prosecute children as adults. “Nationwide, between 1985 and 1995, the number of youth incarcerated in prisons and jails roughly doubled. As of 2013, almost 6,000 kids were held in adult facilities across the country.”

Investigative reporter Dana Liebelson used public records requests to obtain graphic videos, prison records, and other documents that demonstrate the mistreatment kids face in the adult system. Minors (who have not yet developed adult judgment or restraint) “can be punished simply for exhibiting typical teenage behavior, like disobedience, not fully understanding prison rules, or not knowing how to cope with anxiety.”

Compared to kids in juvenile detention, those in the adult system attempt suicide much more often. The case of Kalief Browder, who committed suicide on June 8 after spending three years in the jail on Rikers Island for allegedly stealing a backpack at age sixteen, has drawn attention to the lasting damage inflicted by subjecting juveniles to solitary confinement and brutal assaults by other incarcerated people and prison guards.

Children are five times more likely to be sexually assaulted in adult prisons than in juvenile facilities. Recognizing the heightened risk for youth, the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act stipulates that youth may not be held within “sight and sound” of adult inmates. But in 2015, only ten states reported that they were in full compliance.

The United States is an international outlier in treating children as adults. Liebelson points out that China, Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Haiti have banned the practice, and while some Western countries, like the United Kingdom and Germany, do allow youth to be sentenced as adults, they do not put them in prison.

Putting kids in adult prisons runs counter to public safety. A study reviewed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that minors who had served time in the adult system were 77 percent more likely to be arrested for a violent felony than those who were sent to juvenile institutions for similar crimes.

The decision to treat a child as an adult also tends to reflect the presumption of guilt and dangerousness attached to young people of color in this country. One national study found that in a single year, almost 10 times more Black kids were committed to adult facilities than were white kids. EJI reported the results of another study finding that, out of 257 children prosecuted as adults in Chicago between 2010 and 2012, only one was white.

“The decision to direct cases to the adult system is largely left to individual judges or prosecutors, who are often affected by their own ‘hidden biases’ — about skin color, economic class, parental history and other factors — that have little to do with public safety.” Indeed, a nationwide sample of cases sent from juvenile to adult court in 2013 shows that about half were related to property, drug or public order crimes, not serious violent offenses.

EJI believes that confining children in adult jails and prisons is unnecessary, indefensible, and cruel, and is working to ban the practice nationwide.