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Interview with Nell Bernstein, Author of Burning Down the House: The End of Juvenile Prison

June 23, 2014 | Revolution Newspaper |


Book cover: Burning Down the House: The End of Juvenile Prison  by Nell Bernstein

I want to recommend readers get their hands on an interview with Nell Bernstein, author of a new book called Burning Down the House: The End of Juvenile Prison, that ran on the National Public Radio show Fresh Air on Wednesday, June 4 (just google “Fresh Air Nell Bernstein”). A word of warning: it will make you angry—really angry—at what this system systematically does to hundreds of thousands of kids.

The U.S. incarcerates a higher percentage of youth than any other country in the world. Bernstein systematically takes apart all the justifications for locking these kids behind bars, especially the charge that these are “monsters” and “psychopaths,” that society has no choice but to lock these kids up.

She’s talked to hundreds of kids all around the country who have been locked up or are still in the system. One thing she emphasizes is how the youth often downplay what they’ve been through—she says she’s tried to confirm the stories she’s heard by checking the records of the institutions themselves and found that what the youth told her was either verified or the reality turned out to be even worse than what she was told. I won’t try to cover all she says, but just to give you a taste:

  • She talks about who these kids really are: How some are as young as 10 years old when they’re first locked up. How Black youth are five times as likely to be locked up for the exact same things as white youth in the same conditions. How 40 percent of the juvenile prisoners in large-scale state facilities—the prisons intended for the “worst of the worst”—are there for things like truancy, shoplifting, loitering or disturbing the peace.
  • She talks about the way the authorities try to deny the real nature of youth prisons by changing the words—they aren’t prisons, they’re “training schools” or “ranches;” the kids aren’t put in cells, they are in “rooms;” solitary confinement cells are “reflection cottages.”
  • She talks about how the whole point is to break the youth down. She gives an example of a kid who was housed in a dormitory and there was a fight the day he arrived. The entire dorm was stripped to their boxers, handcuffed and chained together, taken to the gym and forced to kneel there for what turned out to be two weeks. “He described his humanity draining out of him as he listened to the guards banter and tell jokes and just pass the time, as if these were something other than suffering human beings on the floor in front of them.”
  • Or how the prisons throw kids into “cold rooms” (tiled cells with nothing in them but a drain in the floor).
  • Federal statistics say at least 1 in 10 kids are raped or sexually assaulted by guards and other staff. Bernstein talks about a young woman locked up because she’d been involved in street prostitution. Her counselor first made her recount the things she’d done with men, then made her reenact them with him! “We have a federal law, PREA, the Prison Rape Elimination Act, which includes adults and juveniles and has taken 10 years to get even to the implementation phase” says Bernstein. “But to me the idea that we need a special law telling adults not to rape the kids that they are in charge of is just stunning to me.”

There’s much more, and I’m anxious to read Bernstein’s new book. But take a listen to the interview, and then think about this quote from BA:

No more generations of our youth, here and all around the world, whose life is over, whose fate has been sealed, who have been condemned to an early death or a life of misery and brutality, whom the system has destined for oppression and oblivion even before they are born. I say no more of that. (BAsics 1:13)


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