Youth incarceration is a significant issue in the U.S. Each day, nearly 37,000 youth are held in residential facilities -- a term that includes youth prisons -- and many of these young people are young people of color and LGBTQ young people of color. Launched five years ago, The Youth First Initiative is a national initiative supporting community organizers across the country to abolish the youth prison system. Of the many misconceptions the public has about Youth Prisons, one is the belief that incarcerating youth is an effective strategy for helping young people. Youth First’s Policy Director, Carmen Daugherty explains, “I think a lot of people still believe that youth prisons are places of rehabilitation. There is this idea that if we send kids away they will just get better.” The reality though, is far different. Daugherty describes, “Most people do not understand the psychological experiences and impacts of youth incarceration. Youth as young as eight-years old are put on lockdown and into solitary confinement, and it causes dramatic psychological impacts.”
Youth First raises awareness about these realities by partnering with Performing Statistics, a Virginia based national cultural organizing project that uses art to model, imagine, and advocate for alternatives to youth incarceration, and recently created a 3-D video experience that walks people through what it's like to be in a youth prison. Daugherty adds that in addition to confinement, “there is also a lot of child abuse happening behind these bars.” Daugherty’s insights from working in the field are echoed in books like Just Mercy and other reports documenting the physical, psychological, and sexual abuse incurred at the hands of peers and supervising adults. These inhumane conditions destroy any chance of young people getting onto a positive path. Says Daugherty, “Besides the moral argument and the racial inequities, it doesn’t make sense for the state to keep spending money on abusive facilities, doing the worse things with the worse outcomes. It is time to shut them down.” In addition to the gross moral injustice of these policies and systems, incarcerating youth comes at a high financial cost. Daugherty explains, "states are putting millions of dollars into youth prisons" and "the cost of an incarcerated young person can be several hundred thousand dollars per child.” Youth First has been compiling cost data and has produced a state-by-state map. In Colorado, African-American youth are seven times more likely to be incarcerated than white youth. The annual cost of confinement can be upwards of $100,000 annually, ten times that of educating a child in the public school system.
It’s not just about closing youth prisons, though, says Daugherty. The divestment piece is just as important a consideration as closure, “It’s much more than closing a place, it’s about building out a continuum of care for young people, whether it’s educational services, mentoring, family therapy, all of those things that do not exist prior to enter the system, they need services to make them whole.” Toward this vision, Youth First offers a supportive network for local groups advocating for the closure of youth prisons. Youth First provides state and local groups with campaign and communications support, and facilitates connections with funders and allied organizations. These resources have supported state groups in recent wins. For instance, Connecticut shut down their last youth prison in 2018, and Maine Youth Justice, a youth-run campaign, won the support of the state legislature to close its sole youth prison and divest funding from that facility (however, the Governor vetoed the bill).
The partnership between Youth First and the Research Hub began in 2019. Since then, the Research Hub has been in the process of conducting an evaluation of the Youth Leaders Network of the Youth First Initiative to assess if and how the model has been effective for supporting young people and state campaigns. Young people have thrived on rich workshops and opportunities to learn, strong relationships with mentors, and are hungry for more pathways to leadership opportunities. Youth First and the Research Hub are partnering to learn more about the experiences of LGBTQ youth in youth prisons and what is needed for them to feel supported. Daugherty explains, “LGBTQ youth are heavily represented in youth prisons, but it’s not something we are talk about enough.” Of working with the Research Hub, Daugherty says, “I’ve loved it. I work with a lot of research groups and it’s never been this much about relationship building, they’ve become my thought partners, I trust them, I love how we slowly built a project we could do together, with no ulterior motives.” The thoughtfulness and passion also stood out to Daugherty: “I love just how thoughtful the Research Hub has been in the process of creating surveys for young people... their eagerness to work on the issue. I appreciate how they have come to the work.”
Working with Youth First has impacted the Research Hub’s associates on personal and scholarly levels. Of this experience, said Dr. Adam York, “my first job after undergrad was working as a counselor with young people who were in the system and just released from jail. So, I already had a lot of the same concerns as those in the youth prison abolition movement. Working with Youth First has clarified what my grievances with the system are, added to my understanding of the overall issue, and allowed a more grounded perspective on what it will take to change this system.” Matt Garcia, a graduate student researcher shared, “I really value and respect the sincerity of people involved in this movement. When you know something intellectually compared to when you experience something in your own life, there’s a big difference and it’s more real when you’ve been impacted by the system.”
With a “growing crime narrative” resurging among some news and social media outlets, there is concern that like in the 1990s, the public will once again turn toward investing in incarceration rather than social services and supports. Of this resurging crime narrative, Daugherty says, “Our fear is that we are going to repeat history, and the decisions of the 1990s were terrible decisions. Many of our young people’s structures are gone right now. COVID has shown us that there has been a lack of resources for decades, and young people are really struggling right now, and that is why we push so hard to reinvest in communities. It is not enough to say “no more prisons,” we need to put our money where our mouths are.” When asked about the future of Youth First, Daugherty explained, “Our time-limited window has created a sense of energy to get this done. We have been really serious about shutting these places down quickly. Looking ahead, although Youth First will one day be gone, the state campaigns will continue. The connections and structures we’ve supported will live on beyond us.” To learn more about the Youth First Initiative visit https://www.nokidsinprison.org/