In spite of some signs of improvement, fundamental disparities persist in youth incarceration. The number of youngsters in U.S. correctional facilities has been cut in half—a dramatic drop of 53 percent from 2001 to 2013—according to a Pew analysis of federal data. Still, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a child-advocacy group, found “in every year for which data are available, the overwhelming majority of confined youth are held for nonviolent offenses.” And children of color bear the brunt of juvenile-justice policies: Black children are nearly five times as likely, and Latino and Native American youngsters are two to three times as likely, to be incarcerated as are their white peers.
Similar inequities carry over to the learning that happens behind bars. Though confined young people are entitled to an education by law, the quality of the education they receive can vary greatly. The U.S. Departments of Education and Justice issued guidance to states in December 2014 to improve school programs in youth detention. But overall, the education of incarcerated youth is mostly ignored and poorly understood.
Among those working to bring greater visibility to the issue of schooling in juvenile-detention facilities is David Domenici, the director of the Center for Educational Excellence in Alternative Settings (CEEAS), a nonprofit devoted to improving teaching and learning at juvenile-justice schools. In 2013 CEEAS developed “Words Unlocked,” a nationwide poetry contest to amplify the voices and creative talents of incarcerated youngsters. After speaking recently at an education summit hosted by The Atlantic, Domenici offered additional thoughts on why educating students in juvenile facilities deserves more attention and support. The interview that follows has been edited for length and clarity.