Exploring Youth Incarceration

By Victoria Mills

There can’t be anyone, I am sure, who doesn’t know what it feels like to be disliked, even rejected, momentarily or for sustained periods of time. Perhaps the feeling is merely indifference, mild annoyance, but it may also hurt. It may even be that some of us know what it is like to be actually hated—hated for things we have no control over and cannot change. I was interested in. . . the far more tragic and disabling consequences of accepting rejection as legitimate, as self-evident. I knew that some victims of powerful self-loathing turn out to be dangerous, violent, reproducing the enemy who has humiliated them over and over. Others surrender their identity, melt into a structure that delivers the strong persona they lack. Most others grow beyond it. But there are some who collapse, silently, anonymously, with no voice to express or acknowledge it. They are invisible. The death of self-esteem can occur quickly and easily in children before their ego has “legs” so to speak. Couple the vulnerability of youth with indifferent parents, dismissive adults, and a world, which in its language, laws, and images, reinforces despair, and the journey to destruction is sealed.
—Toni Morrison (2007 [1970])

I am filming at Bridge City Center for Youth in Bridge City, Louisiana, for my documentary Like Any Other Kid.1 The center is in an old rundown convent, which is now being used as a secure detention facility for youth ages 11-21. I’m hanging out in their unit with my cinematographer. The kids have gotten used to our visits and being part of the film. A group of us is playing cards. They tease me because I always lose. Out of the blue, one of the youth turns to me and asks, “By the way, why are you making this film?” I tell him “I want people to know about how amazing you are.” He lifts his face from the cards in his hand, looks up at me, and says, ”People don’t want to know about us. They don’t care.” “Well that’s my point,” I say, “I am going to make them know about you and make them care.”

Making Like Any Other Kid, which follows the relationships between youth and staff in three secure juvenile detention facilities across the country, was a project of love for me. As a psychoanalyst and filmmaker, I have worked with at-risk youth throughout my entire career. These children have a special place in my heart. When making the film, I would spend a weekend or more at a facility, and the more comfortable the kids got with me, the more they shared parts of themselves. For instance, at one facility the kids were eager to show me what they made. One boy dug out all of the comics he had been drawing since he was locked up. Elsewhere, my cinematographer and I played basketball, volleyball, and cards with the kids, and we danced and watched movies with them. At yet another facility, we taught the boys how to make survival bracelets, which are constructed by weaving colorful ropes and are helpful if you need to tie up something. Everywhere we went, the kids created things for us to take home. These children wanted to be watched, seen, heard, and attended to just like all children do. They have the same need to be protected and cared for. In making my film, I wanted to show that youth who are in the carceral system are just like any kid. The carceral system does not allow us to see these dimensions of young people because that is not, in fact, its function. We are told that the juvenile carceral system is meant to punish/rehabilitate youth (Bernstein 2014; Bowman 2018), whereas in reality it isolates them, shames them, and fails to address the underlying traumas (caused by failures of the below-noted systems) that youth have experienced. As Morrison explains in the foreword of The Bluest Eye, “The death of self-esteem can occur quickly and easily in children” (2007 [1970]). The carceral system hastens that process and often seals “the journey to destruction” of which Morrison writes.

In the film, I focus on individuals, so audiences can get to know the youth who experience incarceration. Viewers hear about their crimes but, after watching youth interact with their peers and staff, often forget that the people on screen have broken the law. These young people are trying to figure out their lives, like the adolescents I work with in my psychoanalytic practice. You struggle with them, you empathize, you understand them. Only, in this case, most of these youth have fewer options and resources to draw from. My approach portrays youth in the juvenile carceral system as the children they really are, so that then hopefully viewers will begin to question the damage and wastefulness this system creates as a whole. These individuals’ stories also serve as a vehicle to condemn the other unjust systems that youth are born into: the economic system, the education system, and the healthcare system, just to name a few. Incarceration is generally a result of the way these other systems have failed them. Nonetheless, if nurturing adults treat youth with respect, kindness, and guidance, as the film shows, the youths’ self-esteem improves, and we see potential for internal (how they view themselves) and external (how they impact others) change. (See the lesson plan in this special feature, titled “Pathways to Perception.”)

What do children get when they are involved with the system?
What they get is a massively broken system that doesn’t meet their needs. It is important to note that there is no uniformity (and there never was) in how juveniles in the carceral system are treated. Throughout the United States, policies, practices, and decisions about juvenile detention are made on a state-by-state basis. Where a youth lives, along with other factors, such as their race, class, and education level, determine their experience. For instance, although the 1967 Supreme Court case In re Gault required that youth have the right to counsel, only eleven states provided that for their youth (Scali 2019).

A review of the history of the juvenile carceral system informs much of what exists and is being challenged today, such as by groups like No Kids in Prison and the Square One Project report, Can We Eliminate the Youth Prison? (And What Should We Replace It With?) (Schiraldi 2020).

Throughout the last four-hundred-plus years, racial disparities have existed within our country and culture. These disparities continue and are mirrored in the juvenile carceral system. In the last twenty-five years they have worsened, despite lower numbers of imprisoned youth (Dragmomir and Tadros 2020; see also the “Additional Resources” for this special feature):

Black and American Indian youth are overrepresented in juvenile facilities, while white youth are underrepresented. These racial disparities are particularly pronounced among both Black boys and Black girls, and while American Indian girls make up a small part of the confined population, they are extremely overrepresented relative to their share of the total youth population. While 14% of all youth under 18 in the U.S. are Black, 42% of boys and 35% of girls in juvenile facilities are Black. And even excluding youth held in Indian country facilities, American Indians make up 3% of girls and 1.5% of boys in juvenile facilities, despite comprising less than 1% of all youth nationally (Sawyer 2019).

In addition, as written in Alternatives to Detention and Confinement Literature Review, “research has demonstrated that detention and confinement facilities negatively affect a child’s mental state, academic aptitude, and employment prospects. Placing a juvenile in secure facilities hinders the juvenile’s developmental process, leads to depression, and increases the risk of suicide or other self-harm” (Office of Juvenile Justice 2014, 2; see also Holman and Ziedenberg 2007).

Despite experiencing all of this damage within the juvenile carceral system (and other systems), the youth that I met have grown into some of the smartest, sweetest, and most talented people I have ever known. Some youth are just more resilient than others. If they have made it this far and haven’t crumbled, they can really benefit from positive intervention from helpful adults in and out of the system. Research indicates that the adolescent brain is still developing through the age of twenty-five, so there is ample time for change to occur (Williams 2020). Moreover, community-based treatment programs, which connect youth with jobs, education, and mental health care, are far more effective than lock-up in helping youth build sustainable lives (see Office of Juvenile Justice 2014).

This special feature provides additional ways to learn about the juvenile carceral system, the youth themselves, current approaches within facilities that treat youth with respect, and what abolishing the system itself could entail. Included is an interview with people who have different experiences with and perspectives about the prison industrial complex, two lesson plans based on footage recorded while making Like Any Other Kid, and a resources list for additional classroom learning.

The Juvenile In(Justice) System: An Interview
This interview is structured as a conversation with Sheila Mitchell, CEO of Unity Care (San JosĂ©, CA), former Chief Deputy of Juvenile Service with the County of Los Angeles Probation Department, and former Chief of Probation with Santa Clara County; Evelyn Gonzalez, Santa Clara County Credible Messenger Mentor with Fresh Lifelines for Youth; and me, Victoria Mills, psychoanalyst and filmmaker. Moderated by Kolleen Duley, assistant professor of gender and women’s studies at SUNY Plattsburgh, this interview explores the problems with the carceral system and alternative approaches to meeting youths’ needs.

The Lesson Plans
We have included two lesson plans in this special feature. They are based on video footage from the two hundred hours we filmed when making Like Any Other Kid. Because there were so many powerful moments that we weren’t able to include in the film, we created short vignettes from outtakes. These video vignettes are perfect for classroom use; not only are they short in duration, but they are very specific, unique, and rare snapshots of the interactions between youth and staff and among the youth themselves, which powerfully illustrate the affective/emotional dimensions of incarceration. With the “Pathways to Perception” lesson plan, educators can examine how the youth grapple with their own ideas of who they are, the influence of societal norms and expectations, and the opportunities they have to form a more accurate, evolving sense of themselves. In the “Role Play: ‘How to Say No’” lesson plan, the vignette shows how youth struggle (in role play scenarios) with the very real difficulties they may face when returning to their neighborhoods and in the situations they may encounter in an unchanged environment even if they have changed. Both lesson plans offer discussion prompts and activities that can help students explore the topics, ideas, and issues each video raises.

Works Cited

Bernstein, Nell. 2014. Burning Down the House: The End of Juvenile Prison. New York: New Press.

Bowman, Scott Wm. 2018. “The Kids Are Alright: Making a Case for Abolition of the Juvenile Justice System.” Critical Criminology 26 (July): 393-405.

Dragomir, Renne Rodriguez, and Enan Tadros. 2020. “Exploring the Impacts of Racial Disparity within the American Juvenile Justice System.” Juvenile and Family Court Journal 71, no. 2 (June): 61-73.

Holman, Barry, and Jason Ziedenberg. 2007. The Dangers of Detention: The Impact of Incarcerating Youth in Detention and Other Secure Facilities. Washington, DC: Justice Policy Institute.

Morrison, Toni. 2007 (1970). “Foreword.” In The Bluest Eye, n.p. New York: Vintage International.

Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. 2014. Alternatives to Detention and Confinement. Washington, DC: US Department of Justice.

Sawyer, Wendy. 2019. Youth Confinement: The Whole Pie 2019. Northampton, MA: Prison Policy Initiative.

Scali, Mary Ann. 2019. ”Meeting the Mandates of Gault: Automatic Appointment of Counsel in Juvenile Delinquency Proceedings.” Juvenile and Family Court Journal 70, no. 3 (September): 7-23.

Schiraldi, Vincent. 2020 Can We Eliminate The Youth Prison? (And What Should We Replace it With?). New York: The Square One Project.

Williams, Ashley. 2020. “Early Childhood Trauma Impact on Adolescent Brain Development, Decision Making Abilities, and Delinquent Behaviors: Policy Implications for Juveniles Tried in Adult Court Systems.” Juvenile and Family Court Journal 71, no.1 (March): 5-17.

1 Kolleen Duley reviews Like Any Other Kid in issue 11.2 of Films for the Feminist Classroom.

Victoria Mills, director/producer, is an award-winning documentary filmmaker and full-time, practicing psychoanalyst in New York City. Her previous film directing credits include Mothers and Daughters: Mirrors That Bind and Hidden Battles, both of which traveled the national and international festival circuits and had successful impact initiatives with women and girls, and veterans and peace organizations respectively. As an analyst with over 30 years of experience, Victoria has worked extensively with adolescents and adults, including those who have experienced trauma. She is a training analyst, former faculty member, lecturer, and member of the International Psychoanalytic Association, the Institute for Psychoanalytic Training and Research, and the National Psychological Association for Psychoanalysis. In conjunction with her films, she leads workshops with universities, national organizations, and grassroots community groups. She is currently working on her fourth film.