This is the fourth article in a six-part series about young people with siblings in prison. Read part one here.

The Youth First Initiative wants to help end the use of youth prisons. The justice-advocacy group works from the premise that detaining minors—whether in youth facilities or in prisons—is not just a poorly executed practice; it is simply beyond repair. “This model of incarceration is broken—it does not work,” says Liz Ryan, the president and CEO of the Youth First Initiative. “It actually has never worked.”

The United States has been incarcerating child offenders for a couple hundred years without any indication that it benefits children or society. In fact, says Ryan, the opposite is true: Incarceration harms kids and creates repeat offenders. “We know from the research that when young people are in contact with their families, they’re going to actually do much better,” says Ryan. “The recidivism rates are going to be lower for those young people.” Youth First works with partners around the country to dismantle incarceration systems that target children and to reinvest those state and federal funds into nonresidential community-based programs that allow young people to remain with their families while under court supervision.

As I recently reported, there is no shortage of incarcerated youth. Currently, there are 54,000 juvenile offenders in youth-detention facilities across the nation. Of those kids, in an average year, 17,800 have not even been sentenced. According to the Campaign for Youth Justice, they “are just awaiting their turn in court.” What’s more, another 200,000 youth “are tried, sentenced, or incarcerated as adults” every year. That means a quarter of a million kids are taken from their homes—while brothers and sisters watch it happen. And as one British study noted, “Older sibling offending was related to younger sibling offending in both brothers and sisters.”

“Removing a young person from their family is a traumatic and negative situation, and is something that we can avoid,” Ryan says. “If a young person does pose a serious threat to public safety, removing them from the home should be a last resort.” I recently spoke to Ryan about what happens when society imprisons youth. An edited and abridged version follows.


Juleyka Lantigua-Williams: What has been your experience with families of incarcerated youth?

Liz Ryan: Families in general—the parents of these young people, the siblings of these young people—are not taken into consideration in any way whatsoever by the justice system. When a young person’s locked up, the state becomes their parent. That’s the theory in the juvenile-justice system, which really runs counter to what the research shows. The research shows that young people thrive in families. They do best when they’re with their families.

While the parents are often overlooked and not considered part of the mix at all, the siblings are completely invisible. In the time that I’ve been doing this work, which is roughly 20 years, maybe a little more, I’ve seen nothing written about how the siblings fare when they have an incarcerated brother or sister.

When I talk to families who have a child locked up, it has a serious negative effect on the whole family. The financial cost of it, plus that young person being away for all the holidays, not being there for graduations, for proms, for all those kind of life events. The emotional toll that it takes on people is really difficult.

Lantigua-Williams: Can you recall an example of a family where the siblings remained behind?

Ryan: I’m thinking of a family whose son was tried in adult court in Virginia. He was placed in adult prison about five hours away from where they lived. He had a younger sister. The parents had saved money for the kids to go to college, and they basically spent that money visiting their son in prison and trying to stay in touch with him and put money on his canteen. They spent the money that they had saved for college for the younger sibling on the older brother. The sister understood. She was not upset because she wanted the family to stay connected. But you can imagine what the future life outcome of that young person is when the family’s savings are drained. A family that already is strapped financially, and the little savings that they do have is now being used to defend or to keep in touch with their son. This young man had threatened to commit suicide. He was a teenager in adult prison; he was afraid all the time. So the family responded to that by trying to go visit him every weekend. It’s a five-hour drive, so you have to drive down, stay overnight, visit the next day, and then drive back.

And that’s a middle-income family with some resources, a family who actually had some savings for college. Imagine what it does to families who are low income. Those families can’t afford the travel. They don’t get to see their siblings. They don’t get to see their kids.

Then there’s Washington, D.C. When offenders are tried in adult criminal court in D.C., if they’re sentenced to a term of incarceration, they’re sent to a federal prison or, before the age of 18, to a juvenile facility that the Federal Bureau of Prisons contracts with. There are no adult prisons in the District anymore. At one point, all the D.C. kids were being sent to Devils Lake, North Dakota, which is 1,500 miles away, so few family members had visited their kids in years. [The advocacy organization where Ryan previously worked paid for the families of eight incarcerated D.C. youth to visit South Dakota.]

In several instances, it was just the moms who came. In one instance, the mom and the sister came. The sister hadn’t seen her brother in several years, and he hadn’t seen her, either. You can imagine what a reunion is like if you haven’t seen a sibling in a couple of years and how difficult that had to have been. After that trip, the Federal Bureau of Prisons decided that kids from D.C. would no longer be sent that far away. They realized that no one could visit.

Those kinds of obstacles just make it really, really difficult for families to stay connected. That’s not the case with everyone, but if somebody is tried in federal court, that is what happens. They are placed pretty far away. That’s a small number compared with the number of kids who are in state correctional systems or in local correctional systems. But they face obstacles, too. Several families have told me that when they’ve gone to visit their loved one, if they have the wrong shoes on or if they’re suspected of having contraband, they can be told the visit is not allowed. This kind of stuff happens all the time. Also, inside the prison, if the young person has gotten into trouble, or if something happened at the facility that affected everybody, like a facility-wide lockdown, they’ll say, “No visits this week for everybody.” This happens all the time. People kind of expect it and are used to it, which is really awful. It’s that bad.

Lantigua-Williams: During sentencing, do judges take distance into account when they place a young person in a facility?

Ryan: Definitely not. Often it’s not the judge making that decision. It’s usually a state’s Department of Corrections or its Department of Juvenile Justice. They can do what’s called a “determinate sentence” or an “indeterminate sentence.” A determinate sentence is when a judge first sentences a youth to a specific period of time, then the youth is sent to the Department of Juvenile Justice, and they then place the youth somewhere. An indeterminate sentence is when the youth just goes straight to the Department of Juvenile Justice, and they decide what to do with the youth—where he or she goes and for how long. Again, each state is different.

In some states, the judge actually can determine the length of time and/or the placement of that kid, but in a lot of states, it’s the Department of Juvenile Justice if they’re in the juvenile system. If they’re in the adult system, it’s the Department of Corrections. In either case, the facility placement isn’t so much about whether that young person is close to their family. It’s more about where there’s an empty bed, or whether it’s a medium-secure facility or whether it’s a maximum-secure facility. It depends on what they believe that young person’s risk to public safety is. Again, each place is going vary on how they address that, but family considerations are definitely not part of the thinking in terms of where a young person is placed or for how long.

Lantigua-Williams: Does the family play any role in the process?

Ryan: In the juvenile court, it’s not a trial. It’s a delinquency proceeding. Often, it’s just that young person and their attorney. The hearings are typically not open, and that’s for the confidentiality of that young person. The theory is that the young person’s record in juvenile court shouldn’t follow them for the rest of their life. So, with a few exceptions, the court hearings are usually closed. That means siblings are not there. In very limited circumstances would they ever have another child in that court hearing, let alone have them say anything at that hearing.

Lantigua-Williams: Can we talk about solitary confinement?

Ryan: Solitary confinement is used for young people in the adult criminal-justice system all the time. It’s given all kinds of different names and euphemisms. They call it “administrative segregation,” or “protective custody,” or the young people call it “the hole” or “the box.” When a young person is tried in adult criminal court and is sentenced to a term of incarceration, or if a young person is held pre-trial in an adult jail, the jailers and prison officials will often put that young person in “segregation” for their own protection. What they’re saying is: “No, no this isn’t punishment. This isn’t solitary confinement. We’re trying to make sure this young person isn’t raped by other inmates or isn’t abused by other inmates.” Youth First recommends that they remove kids from those facilities altogether.

In the juvenile system, it is shocking how often solitary confinement is used. There is no federal requirement for facilities to report use of isolation, protective custody, administrative segregation, or room confinement. Sometimes it’s not a special wing or a special cell that they put the kid in. They’ll just lock them in their room. We really don’t know the extent to which it’s utilized.

Lantigua-Williams: How do families reach their children to confirm that they’re okay when they are placed in this type of confinement?

Ryan: If a young person was in room confinement or in some type of isolation for a period of time, their families don’t have contact with them and aren’t allowed to have contact with them. Now, a lot of the correctional-agency heads want the families to be able to have contact with their young person, with their loved ones, but that’s not necessarily how it translates in practice: It’s a pain in the neck to try to get that young person to a phone. You have to have extra staff go down and let that person out and then bring them to wherever they can connect to the families. If they’re isolated for some type of punishment, they’re definitely not going to allow them to have any contact with their families. Contact with family is not a right, it’s a privilege, according to these systems. They view it as a privilege that can be taken away. If you’re in some type of isolation, they have no obligation to do anything more about your connection with your family.

Lantigua-Williams: What happens to a family and to siblings in the absence of this child?

Ryan: It’s a profound loss. It takes an emotional toll on families and on siblings when a young person is incarcerated. The younger siblings miss having their older sibling around, and they don’t often understand what’s going on or why they can’t have contact. They may be angry; they may think that the older sibling doesn’t want to be in touch with them. They may not know that it’s because of the situation and the way the justice system operates. It discourages that kind of contact. I think there’s real sadness that comes with that. When I hear young people talk about their relationships with their siblings when they were locked up, it comes with a lot of tears and a lot of sadness and a lot of heartache.