Building a “Kinder” Justice System: Youth Experiences with Incarceration   

— an Interview with Alexandra Cox by Zhandarka Kurti —


Zhandarka Kurti is a postdoctoral fellow in NYU’s Prison Education Program. She recently spoke with Alexandra Cox about her new book, Trapped in a Vice: The Consequences of Confinement for Young People, young people’s experiences with incarceration in upstate New York, and the lessons that understanding the historical context of the juvenile justice system can offer activists today.

[the above image is of Hillbrook Juvenile Detention Center in Syracuse, NY]




As some have noted, contemporary neoliberal criminal justice reforms continue to favor “non-violent offenders” as victims of a criminal justice system gone awry and frame “violent offenders” as deserving of their punishment. Historically, this distinction has been central to another important and often neglected institution of state control: the juvenile justice system, an outcome of a mid- to late nineteenth century movement that pushed for the creation of a separate system of punishment for young people under the auspices of care and benevolence. These ideas gave way to the understanding that some young people were worth saving, while others, namely those deemed “bad,” deserved to be locked away in juvenile detention centers and adult prisons. This paradox of state abandonment and intervention into the lives of “bad” and “ungovernable” youth is the subject of Alexandra Cox’s new book, Trapped in a Vice: The Consequences of Confinement for Young People.


Relying on years of ethnographic research and extensive interviews with youth and juvenile justice facility staff in three detention facilities in upstate New York, Cox’s book sheds light on the long roads leading to youth incarceration, how it marks how young people see themselves, and the challenges they face coming home. Cox brings us inside facilities where even the most well-intentioned staffers, therapists, and program directors attempt to change mostly “bad” or “ungovernable” poor youth of color through mechanisms that pathologize their behaviors. A wide range of institutional actors from social workers to probation officers seek to hold young people accountable in order to be “productive” in a society that lacks any substantive and meaningful material and emotional support to nurture their development into adulthood. In Trapped in a Vice, the vice is not the young people nor their actions but the system itself.


Cox’s book couldn’t have come at a better moment. New York has once again become a key laboratory of criminal justice reforms: the state has cut adult incarceration by a quarter, closed twelve juvenile justice facilities, including the infamous Spofford and Tryon youth prisons, and moved young people “closer to home” under the supervision of local non-profit organizations. Due to mounting political pressure by criminal justice advocates and reformers, solitary confinement for young people under the age of 21 has ended on Rikers Island. Furthermore, some but not all, 16- and 17-year-olds will no longer be tried as adults and sent to Rikers, and the sprawling complex’s closure looks imminent in the next decade, replacing America’s last penal colony with a series of neighborhood jails, which will be better integrated into poor and working-class communities. These changes come on the heels of the expansion of two existing juvenile detention centers in New York City. Furthermore the recent passage of the Raise the Age bill has led to an expansion of local correctional budgets in upstate New York as well as the presence of a more aggressive funding scheme of juvenile justice reforms, which prop up non-profit organizations as key players in the supervision and management of youth “in the community.”


Cox’s research on and political commitments to young people’s well-being and humanity reveal the damaging effects of incarceration on youth, the majority of whom are poor and working-class youth of color. It also pushes readers to be critical of criminal justice reform efforts that seek to simply reorganize and embed the system and its actors into the community which would expand the reach of the carceral state instead of demanding material resources and support, which would confront the root causes of violence and economic despair in our neighborhoods and cities.


ZK: Youth incarceration is often neglected in mainstream discussions around mass incarceration. Your book is an important contribution to our understanding of how the juvenile justice system negatively affects young people, the majority of whom are poor and working-class youth of color. Terms like “youth detention center” seem to obscure the fact that they are prisons. Aren’t they?


AC: When I first applied to gain entry to the state’s juvenile facilities, I was asked by state actors not to refer to them as “prisons.” Now, when you arrive at the vast majority of New York’s juvenile facilities, you see hurricane wire fencing, a gate like one you would typically go through to get into an adult prison, the cells are locked from the outside, there is what is called “room confinement” but it’s really solitary confinement, young people wear uniforms, and a number of facilities are regulated by the American Correctional Association. I mean, you can call them “prisons,” you can call them “facilities,” but the youth inside are incarcerated. I believe that the state’s commitment to this language reflects this broader history and ideological commitment to distinguishing itself as a system which is about so-called rehabilitation because that commitment has fueled the juvenile justice system in many ways over the years. Just because we don’t see the bars and the traditional trappings of a prison doesn’t mean they aren’t prisons and shouldn’t be studied that way.


ZK: What brought you to work with incarcerated youth? How has this shaped your motivations for writing this book?


I first started doing work on incarceration and young people in college and, with others, I helped found a chapter of Critical Resistance at Yale [University]. Afterwards, I went to work in drug policy reform in California. It was through that work that I realized that I wanted to work on the ground. I applied for a job in New York City at a public defender office. I somehow went in naively and believed that all my teenage clients were going to be charged with selling drugs, probably both from my immersion into the world of drug policy reform.  But, actually, the vast majority of my teenage clients were charged with robbery, which is a felony, and actually with very serious robberies, and so they faced prison time. It was a real awakening to me because one of the dangers of the narrative about the war on drugs being the scourge of our time was that the lens was not as focused on those charged with serious and violent crimes and, in many ways, they were the people who got left behind. So, I got really interested in what happened to my teenage clients after I finished working with them. I usually visited my clients in Rikers [Island] or in Horizon or Crossroads, which are the two juvenile facilities in New York City. But once they were sentenced, many of them were sent upstate, often 8 or 9 hours away. I felt that these upstate facilities were under-scrutinized, and this gets at why I wrote the book. There has been all this work about adult incarceration, so why not try to knock down the door and do some work inside and see what the context of confinement was?


ZK: What did you uncover?


Despite what we see today, pictures of violence, brutality, and chaos, which do exist in some ways, the most damaging aspects of juvenile incarceration actually have to do with the deep penetration of ideologies of change that exist in these facilities, that are aimed at kids who are identified as “bad.” I found that these facilities were marked by a lot of boredom and inactivity and, in fact, a lot of the programs that once existed, like sports programs and other kinds of activities, had been cut. Libraries were closed. In their place, there was a system of behavioral control that had existed for many years in these places, which was aimed at stimulating young people’s responsibility to change. It was this system of control that really left me quite devastated about the ways that we abandon young people.


ZK: What are the challenges young people face even before they end up incarcerated in these facilities?


What’s so interesting is that in New York State, as is the case in most states in America and, actually, most countries around the world, juvenile justice systems have shrunk dramatically. This is not to say that young people have not gone into other systems and, of course, a number of young people are managed in a whole network of privately contracted facilities. The second part of this is that the racial disproportionality has risen. So, I live in England now and that is more true than in America. In England, 45% of young people in the system are children of color. Relatedly, in New York State, close to 90% of those in these facilities are youth of color. The remaining children are impoverished white rural children and their numbers are rising. The young people who are incarcerated in these facilities are often over-criminalized and underprotected. For instance, they are young people who are sex workers. Through the years I also met a high number of transgender kids who had been living in the streets and were homeless. There are also kids who have been underprotected by other systems, like foster care. Others have been institutionalized in mental health facilities and systematically kicked out of these programs because they were deemed “too difficult.”


ZK: One of the three facilities you discuss in your book is a detention center for girls. There is such little attention paid to the experiences of young women of color in the justice system.


While there’re very few girls who are incarcerated in upstate New York and elsewhere, I nonetheless find that these facilities are often the most heartbreaking places to go to. In this paradoxical way, all of these energies are focused on girls in terms of reform. For example, in this one facility there were 40 staff and therapists and all these programs focused on just eight young women. The girls even got to paint their rooms and have special duvet covers. Yet girls are always getting restrained and the rates are very high, much higher than boys. The facility director said to me something that people around the world say, which is that these are difficult girls, they are “the worst.” The facilities are mostly horrible places because the girls are treated with such contempt and there is this attitude, “We give them what we can, but they don’t want to take it.” I found that there was more disdain for the girls because the boys were more willing to perform for the system. Girls expressed more cynicism and the kind of resigned sense of frustration about the way that the system operated. For example, in the book, I talk about a girl named Belle who was deemed to be incredibly difficult. She talked back to the staff and was especially vocal about the racism in the facility.


ZK: In your research, you also mention the rising number of incarcerated white rural youth.


I thought about this more when I moved to upstate New York. There is a burgeoning apparatus of alternatives to incarceration in New York City, but there is nothing like this in upstate regions. I worked on a number of cases in Rust Belt cities where the judge sentenced my clients to time, when, if they lived in New York City, they would have probably been sentenced to probation. The resource deprivation issues were huge. I remember meeting a kid from a very rural area in upstate New York who was diagnosed with a psychotic disorder and was clearly having hallucinations. He was being held past his release date in the facility because there was nowhere for him to go. They were holding him there illegally. Both of his parents were locked up and he had no home to go back to and literally every place rejected him.


ZK: Your book highlights the whole gamut of institutions that intervene in young people’s lives. For instance, records that various institutions keep on young people–ranging from the Individualized Education Programs geared at special education students in public schools to child welfare reports compiled by well-intentioned social workers–classify young people as “out of control” and “bad.” What are some of the historical continuities you see in the institutional response to the so-called “bad” kid?  


I’ve been trying to reflect on this more. The term “incorrigible child” comes to mind. What I talk about in my book is this shifting notion of who counts as “bad.” Other people have also written about this, so, for example, in the nineteenth century, it was the white racialized child, the Irish and Italian. The reformatory was reserved for the “incorrigible” children but of Italian, Russian descent who could potentially be fixed, all of whom were working class. Black children, on the other hand, were sent to adult prisons. So, they were not only criminalized but also deemed beyond repair. Today this is complex. In many ways the use of “bad” is the language of adults, not kids. When we conceive of the teenager as only an offender, we don’t recognize that there is a complex landscape of adolescence that they are experiencing. The “badness” becomes the only part of their identity. I was struck when I went on a tour of Rikers Island and the commissioner talked about the inherent badness of teenagers and their inclinations towards violence. There is this concept that teenagers are just the worst. The idea is that the child is the incubator of violence instead of the state, which is never viewed as the structure that actually facilitates violence. Today, violence is a subject that liberal reformers have a hard time contending with. Many of the young people in the system are charged with violent crimes. Reformers are working genuinely on how to treat the “bad” child. Yet there is still some persistent kind of myth or idea of the “bad” child, which always has prison or custody at the heart of it.


ZK: This longer history of reform is a very important backdrop in your book. I was wondering if you can sketch what you see as the main assumptions that guide juvenile justice reform today and how they relate to the past?


There are three main assumptions I focus on. The first is that the community is better than custody, secondly that if custody, if it exists, should be trauma-informed and therapeutic, and lastly that teenagers should never be in adult custody. The first juvenile reformatory was founded on the principle that adult prisons are unsafe for children because they are somehow criminogenic spaces and a kid can get in the mix with adult offenders. I think one of the dangers of this ongoing rhetoric is the idea that once someone becomes an adult they are beyond repair. As someone who has represented adults who are charged with very serious crimes and who is committed to thinking about abolition at all different kinds of levels, there is a way that this rhetoric is very damaging for the adults that remain. It is the idea that adult prisons are sources of chaos and the only people in them are these manipulative and dangerous monsters. The second is that the idea that “community is better than custody” is more complex. I have written about this in in my previous work, where I examined the removal of kids from urban communities, which were seen as criminogenic, to rural areas, where these reformatories were built, and put under the supervision of rural families who could cure them and help intervene in their lives. In the past, urban families were demonized, and these two periods have more in common than we think. It’s always this idea that the community is flawed, but we can nonetheless fix people in the community, because the family and community are the sites of the crime. The third aspect is about trauma and rehabilitation. The staffers in facilities have taught me that these new interventions just have different names. How we do it, yes, is slightly different and now the focus is on trauma but, in the reform rhetoric, there is no critique of the enduring commitment to incarceration as a solution.


ZK: Your book comes at a really critical juncture, as “community” is being embraced as the solution to incarceration. Since 2011, about twelve juvenile detention centers have been closed across New York State  and the remaining youth have been moved “closer to home” in secure and semi-secure facilities operated by city agencies and non-profit organizations. Why should we be critical of these reform efforts?


What we should recognize is that in some ways reformers and government agencies are on the same page and are asking for the same thing. We need to pause and ask why this is happening. It is to the advantage of the city and the state “to send” people to the community. Why? Because it’s a lot cheaper and, also, it gives them political capital to say we support children closer to home and in their communities. The “community” and whatever that means is often held responsible for crime control and public safety, and we are seeing an extension of that with these reforms. Also, “community” is a complex concept because the police are so present and many of the young people wanted to leave their communities because they felt so barraged by the police.


ZK: What seems new today is the focus on risk assessment and evidence-based practices, which seek to remove individual bias from criminal justice actors and replace them with “hard data.” In your book, you argue that risk assessment tools are an integral aspect of “racial liberalism.” Can you say more about this?


I was really influenced by the work of Nikhil Singh and Naomi Murakawa when thinking about the role of “racial liberalism” in risk assessment tools today. What was so powerful to me, and this is different from color blindness, is that there is a notion of racial equity, of righting of racial wrongs that is produced by the state. So, if we just make the police gentler and fairer, the so-called “unruly” black people will respond in kind. What intrigued me to think about risk assessment in this way is that the center is always the “bad” child, so through the use of these tools we can intervene in their lives and direct them through appropriate services that will “fix them.” Risk assessment tools are considered to be racially neutral tools. But always underneath this and contained and embedded within these tools are certain assumptions–and they are racialized–about who commits crimes. One of the tools I looked at was developed by a working group of delinquency court actors, so they just decided what was considered a risk factor. So, if a kid, for instance, wasn’t going to school, that made them high risk. When I met a lot of my clients, they weren’t going to school because they had requested a safety transfer, for example, and they didn’t get it, or they felt hated by their teachers and stopped attending. Without understanding the complexity of teenagers’ lives and their decision-making, there is only an assumption of criminality.


ZK: Your book comes at a time when reformers are demanding more humane forms of punishment. Your book puts forth the argument that the impetus to build a caring system is bound up with the very foundation of the juvenile justice system.


There is a need to bring a critical lens to this work and it’s difficult because the climate around reform is a fast-moving train and it’s well-funded. For instance, New York’s Raise the Age law will finally be implemented and the premise of that legal change was that young people shouldn’t be in adult prisons and jails, they should be in “better” juvenile residential facilities. I don’t know what happened behind closed doors but two new youth prisons are being built in the Adirondacks and they are being informed by the latest brain science. I guess my call would be for greater scrutiny. Every time we make incremental changes without being connected to broader social movements and efforts, we are always going to get pushback. I am still searching for a way to begin imagining a world where we are not falling back on the system itself as the solution.


Alexandra Cox is a sociologist at the University of Essex, UK. She continues her work as a mitigation specialist, representing young people charged as adults.


Zhandarka Kurti teaches at Wallkill Correctional Facility and conducts research on contemporary criminal justice reforms.

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