The reality is a harsh one we’d rather not face: Kids do commit violent crimes and do go to prison. But what then? The prevailing image of juvenile facilities as brutalizing and inhumane does, unfortunately, sometimes conforms to reality.
But journalist Angela Neustatter, who recently spent 18 months interviewing boys and girls in British “young offender institutions,” emerged with a surprising perspective on what happens inside. Writing in the leftist British journal New Statesman (Aug. 19, 2002), she notes that while some facilities surely stand in need of reform, others can boast top-notch staffs who actually turn lives around. Yet because we are loathe to confront the reality that children are, indeed, behind bars, Neustatter says we are not only less able to guard against abuses, we’re also compromising the potential to make incarceration a positive experience for these children and teens.
That doing time can be a good thing is the seeming paradox Neustatter heard again and again from her young interviewees: “I was startled at how many said prison had given them something they needed and could not get outside: regular meals, a bed to sleep on, people who would listen to them, a chance to take stock of their lives and escape from a chaotic, drug-fueled, out-of-control spiral that would have led them deeper into crime.” Often these young offenders praised a particular staff member or an educational opportunity that opened their minds to a new direction.
Of course, the larger question looms: What the hell is happening in our society and schools (English and American) that would make a jail cell look good to a kid?