Assurances do not equal compliance, however, and many of these states, such as Michigan, New York, Texas, and Florida, continue to house juveniles with adults, and as Florida has the highest rates of inmate-on-inmate sexual victimization and staff sexual misconduct, juveniles imprisoned in that state face a much higher risk of sexual abuse.
Recommendations under PREA are designed to ensure juveniles get the educational, psychological, and vocation services that only juvenile-detention centers can provide, but they also ensure physical separation between juvenile and adult prisoners when the state has no choice but to house juveniles at the same facility as adults. It requires that youthful inmates be housed apart from adults, share no common spaces, such as showers or day rooms, and where they do share facilities, there must be “sight and sound” separation between youths and adults.
Some states, citing a lack of PREA-compliant facilities, transfer juveniles to other states. Kansas, for example, sends its 16- and 17-year-old prisoners to Nebraska in order to keep them out of adult prisons. While this solution keeps juveniles safer from sexual abuse, it interferes with juveniles’ access to visits from friends and family and the emotional support they can provide—the American Academy of Pediatrics has advocated strongly for family involvement in any juvenile’s health-care treatment. Juveniles housed away from their home state or county can also lose access to their lawyers, rendering them even more powerless from a legal and emotional standpoint.
Access to legal counsel is not only guaranteed by the Constitution, it is also essential to guarding against abuses of power, argues Carmen Daugherty, who serves as the policy director for the Campaign for Youth Justice. “When youth are sent to prison outside of their counties or states, it makes it that much more difficult for that youth to access lawyers who can assist with complicated appeal issues. Instead, you have youth missing out on opportunities for review or opportunities to report prison abuses to attorneys who are often the only people able to visit inmates at any time,” Daugherty explained in a phone interview.
Housing youthful inmates in adult prisons is bad public policy, both for incarcerated juveniles and society at large, she argues. “The impetus behind transferring kids to the adult system has always been public safety, but research has shown the exact opposite. Kids who are placed in the adult system are 34 times more likely to recidivate than their counterparts in the juvenile system.”
Because these kids are less likely than their counterparts imprisoned in juvenile centers to get the vocational training and education they need in order to function after release in an adult prison, society is essentially setting them up to fail, and priming them for recidivism. Most juveniles, even those convicted as adults, are released while they are still young. “Approximately 80 percent of youth convicted as adults will be released from prison before their 21st birthday, and 95 percent will be released by their 25th birthday,” according to the Campaign for Youth Justice.