Youth Prisons in America

50,000 children

The Geography of America's Dysfunctional & Racially Disparate Youth Incarceration Complex

On any given day America incarcerates nearly 50,000 youth within the juvenile justice system

Anytime a youth is deprived of their liberty, that youth is incarcerated. Throughout the U.S., places that incarcerate youth come in many forms and take on various names; training schools, diagnostic centers, assessment centers, residential treatment facilities, wilderness camps, forestry camps, shelters, boot camps, detention centers, juvenile halls, juvenile correctional centers, youth study centers, campuses, cottages, youth development centers, academies, challenge centers, youth centers, children’s centers, youth camps, group homes, and girls or boys schools. These institutions are often named after the town or region where they are located, and on occasion after nearby geographic features such as mountains, lakes and rivers. These vague or pleasant names often obscure the fact that these facilities echo some of the most abusive elements of adult incarceration; solitary confinement, physical and sexual abuse, physical and chemical restraints, and widening margins of racial disparity. Click here for the latest youth incarceration data.

Chapter 1

Disparate Geographies: How Race, Ethnicity, Gender, and Geography Impact the Incarceration of America’s Youth

While the US Department of Justice reports that youth incarceration rates have decreased 50% between 1999 and 2013, too many youth are still locked up, and racial disparities among committed youth have widened. This data shows that youth of color are much more likely to be incarcerated despite the fact that they commit roughly the same level of juvenile crime as white youth. According to the Haywood Burns Institute, African-American youth are 5 times more likely to be incarcerated than white youth, Native American youth are 3.2 times more likely to be incarcerated than white youth, and Latino youth are 2 times more likely to be incarcerated than white youth, and in some individual states, this disparity is profoundly higher. For example, the Sentencing Project reports that Connecticut and New Jersey maintain rates of confinement that are less than half the national average, but both states confine African American youth at 24 times the rate of white youth. Moreover, research from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency shows that disparities are increasing in some jurisdictions.

Girls are now making up a larger share of the juvenile justice population at every stage of the process. According to Gender Injustice: System-Level Juvenile Justice Reforms for Girls over the past two decades, girls share of the juvenile justice system from courts through incarceration saw sizeable increases: arrests increased 45%, court caseloads 40%, detentions jumped 40%, while post-adjudication placement rose by 42%. Gender inequities falling heaviest on girls of color and LBQ/GNCT (lesbian, bisexual, questioning / gender-non-conforming, transgender). For example, in Kansas, black girls are five times more likely to be incarcerated than white girls.

LGBTQ youth represent 5- 7% of the nation’s overall youth population, but they compose 13-15% of those currently in the juvenile justice system. In secure detention or correctional facilities, LGBTQ youth are especially at risk as they face harassment, emotional abuse, physical and sexual assault, and prolonged periods spent in isolation. In addition, a 2016 report from the Movement Action Project (MAP), finds that one in five youth in the juvenile justice system identify as LGBTQ and 85% of these youth are youth of color. LGBTQ youth are vulnerable to discrimination, profiling, and mistreatment in the juvenile and criminal justice systems. In fact, LGBTQ youth are twice as likely to end up in juvenile detention; 20% youth in juvenile justice facilities identify as LGBTQ compared to 7-9% of youth in general.

Charting trends of racial and gender injustice across the juvenile justice system

This map includes rates of incarceration for each state broken out by race, ethnicity, and gender. Custody rates are calculated per 100,000 juveniles ages 10 through the upper age of original juvenile court jurisdiction in each State. Click on a state to see that state’s overall number of incarcerated youth, and breakdowns of incarcerated youth by race, ethnicity, and gender as compared to the general youth population in that state.

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Native American

Compared to Youth Population

20% White
20% Black
20% Latino
20% Native American
20% Asian
The data on incarcerated youth and general youth population is sourced from the Census of Juveniles in Residential Placement 2013 from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice & Delinquency Prevention available online at:
Chapter 2

Desperate Topographies: Visualizing America’s Oldest and Largest Youth Prisons

One of the most harmful, ineffective and expensive forms of incarceration is the youth prison, the signature feature of nearly every state juvenile justice system. States devote the largest share of their juvenile justice resources to youth prisons at an estimated annual cost of over $5 billion per year. While youth incarceration has dramatically decreased over the past decade, almost all states still rely on these costly institutions and the harmful approach they embody. If youth prisons were closed, tens of millions of dollars could be freed up for community-based, non-residential alternatives to youth incarceration, and other youth-serving programs. In October 2016, the National Institutes of Justice, in partnership with the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the Harvard Kennedy School, published The Future of Youth Justice: A Community-Based Alternative to the Youth Prison Model, which rejects the harmful, ineffective, and excessively expensive youth prison model in favor of investment in community-based alternatives that work.

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Sexual Victimization

Physical Abuse/Neglect

Facility Name

Facility Info

Facility information was collected from state juvenile justice, youth services and correctional departments, websites, and other public sources including state agency annual reports, state fact sheets, departmental budgets and planning documents, and Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) audits.

The map above identifies approximately 80 facilities in the U.S. that were established more than 100 years ago or have 100 beds or more. These youth prisons are primarily state-run facilities that provide long-term, post-adjudication confinement for youth under the custody of the state’s department of juvenile justice or similarly named agency. In a few states, the state agency contracts with private organizations to operate secure confinement facilities. Boys and girls are held at these facilities and, in some instances, are held in the same institution. A handful of these facilities confine post-adjudicated, committed youth, and also detain youth pre-adjudication or for a period of time post-adjudication while they await an alternate placement.

Youth prisons are a relic of the past; an approach that came into existence in the late 1820s. Youth prisons embody facility features common to adult prisons, including large bed capacity (over 30 beds); correctional staff whose main role is to count and cuff youth; locked rooms, cells or units; razor wire fences; and practices similar to those used in adult prisons, including use of chemical restraints such as pepper spray; mechanical restraints such as leg irons, handcuffs, wrap restraints and hogtying; use of isolation and solitary confinement; and documented instances of physical and sexual violence, physical and verbal abuse, and neglect such as underfeeding and removal of sanitary napkins and toiletry items. Youth prisons are also often geographically isolated, provide minimal contact with family members or opportunity to remain engaged with their communities, and offer limited access to appropriate educational, recreational and other programming.

The inventory does not include all the state, local and private facilities that confine youth under the custody of the juvenile justice system, such as youth prisons under 100 beds, juvenile detention centers (which typically hold youth while the court processes their case but also incarcerate some youth who are awaiting long-term placement), juvenile halls, and assessment centers where youth are sent to receive evaluations to determine whether they will receive long-term commitments. It also does not include youth prisons that incarcerate youth adjudicated in the adult criminal justice system. Over time, the inventory will be expanded to include all of these kinds of facilities.

We want to hear from you
In order to dismantle youth prisons and address the problem of the youth incarceration complex, we must first identify where our kids are being locked up. Over time, Youth First will continue to add to this interactive map to help paint the picture of youth incarceration in America. We also understand that facility conditions change and intend to provide the most up-to-date information possible. If you have information about facilities in your state where youth are locked up or have a story to share about being locked up, we want to hear from you.
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Chapter 3

Through Their Eyes: A Snapshot of the Daily Lives of America’s Incarcerated Youth

For many young people, entering a youth prison closely resembles the experience of entering an adult prison. Uniformed guards bring in young people restrained in handcuffs and leg irons, pat-frisk or strip search them, issue them institutional undergarments and jumpsuits, and then lock them into cell blocks. The emphasis on order and control within youth prisons discourages normal adolescent behavior. In many facilities, youth are expected to walk in single file lines with their hands behind their backs and often cannot speak to each other when they walk or even when they eat. Youth who disobey rules can lose “privileges” such as recreation, showers, or phone calls home. Staff are often trained to manage youth who act out by using solitary confinement, physical restraints or, in some cases, chemical restraints such as pepper spray.



Oak Creek Youth Correctional Facility in Albany, Oregon is the only girls-only facility in the state. They are part of the Oregon Youth Authority (OYA). Oak Creek has 75 beds and the average length of stay is 138 days.

A teenager, held in solitary confinement is tethered by a two-point restraint in the Mendota Juvenile Treatment Center in Mendota, Wisconsin

Leg irons, shackles, restraints, and handcuffs of various sizes used to control youth.

Giddings State School, in Giddings, Texas houses 320 youth and three types of offenders— capital and violent offenses, sexual offenses, and chemical and substance dependency.

"The blood is on the wall because I hit my head against the wall, a couple of times because I was mad at the staff. They wouldn’t get me out of this smock." —B.H., age 17

"I’m 17 years old. I’ve been here four months. I’ve been in this room four months. I’m wearing a smock to prevent me from hurting myself. I hurt myself. Why? I want to commit suicide. I don’t talk to a therapist. They ain’t doing no good. We go to school in the building. We go the whole day. I can’t have nothing. No books. I pass the time by just sitting here. No friends. I talk to the girl across the way. They allow me to talk to her. I get out of here for an hour a day. I sit and look and stare at space when they let me out." —B.H., age 17

"I don't do drugs. Just some weed. I have a girlfriend here. And on the outs. My parents are real catholic. They say God doesn't like you being with girls, but they’re glad that I do, because that way I won’t get pregnant. She’s been in almost three months. But she’s a good girl. Yeah, they would describe me as part of the Eastside Gang. No, I haven’t been sexually abused. But God thinks I can do better with my life, and He knows I will do better." — K.N., age 15

The closed nature of these facilities makes young people vulnerable to sexual and physical abuse. A Bureau of Justice Statistics survey found one in ten youth in youth prisons have been sexually victimized. The survey also found that youth identifying as LGB experienced youth-on-youth sexual assault 10 times more frequently than heterosexual youth. Young people released from youth prisons have described some institutions as "fight clubs" or "gladiator schools" where young people were expected to fight to avoid abuse or where staff actually set up altercations between youth.

Chapter 4

Compounding Costs: America's Youth Prisons are Failing our Kids and Costing Our Communities

Youth prisons harm kids. Incarcerated youth often experience dangerous facility conditions such as physical and chemical restraints, high suicide risk, sexual and physical abuse, and solitary confinement. Abuse in these facilities has increased to more states, according to the latest research by the Annie E. Casey Foundation in 'Child Maltreatment in U.S. Juvenile Correctional Facilities.'

A wide-ranging and growing body of research exists on how to reduce the likelihood that a youth will reoffend.”

Youth prisons cost communities. According to the Justice Policy Institute, in 'Sticker Shock: Calculating the Full Price Tag of Youth Incarceration', thirty-three U.S. states and jurisdictions spend $100,000 or more annually to incarcerate a young person, and continue to generate outcomes that result in even greater costs. Compare these costs to the investments in education where the average annual per pupil cost of K-12 public education is substantially lower. Communities aren’t safer as youth experience high recidivism rates and incarceration in the juvenile justice system substantially increases the likelihood that youth will be incarcerated in the adult criminal justice system.

Annual cost of most expensive confinement option per child
Annual cost of public school education per student
The bar chart above juxtaposes the average cost to incarcerate one child for one year in this state alongside the average annual cost of educating that child.
State requires family to pay some of the cost of confinement
State may require family to pay some of the cost of confinement

Youth prisons break up families. Youth are often placed in youth prisons far from their families, with limited access and visits. Families are often not included in the treatment plans for youth. And families are paying for at least some of the daily cost of confinement according to the National Center on Juvenile Justice. A new study from the Juvenile Law Center, Debtors’ Prison for Kids? The High Cost of Fines and Fees in the Juvenile Justice System, finds that every state permits juvenile courts to impose system costs on youth and their families, and the impact is felt most by youth of color and youth in poverty. Youth prisons aren’t needed in the first place as the vast majority of incarcerated youth do not pose a risk to public safety. Youth prisons are the most expensive option in the juvenile justice system and consistently produce the worst outcomes. And, recent public opinion polling shows that a majority of Americans think youth prisons should be closed and replaced with rehabilitation and prevention programs that work better to help youth and protect public safety.

Get involved in a campaign to cut youth incarceration in your state
Nearly three quarters of the American public believe that teaching youth who commit an offense to take responsibility for his or her actions does not require incarceration.
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Chapter 5

The Road Home: Moving from Visualizing the Problem to Actualizing the Solution

In the last decade, formerly incarcerated youth, families of incarcerated youth, lawyers, youth advocates and community members have worked together to organize successful campaigns to shut down notorious youth prisons in severals states, including Louisiana, New York, Mississippi, Texas, DC, and California. Today, several campaigns are seeking to build on these victories by promoting a new model of youth justice in their states.

Anything that can be done in a youth prison can be done in the community, only better.”

In Connecticut, the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance is leading efforts to close the state’s long-troubled Connecticut Juvenile Training School and create new community-based alternatives. In Virginia, the RISE for Youth Coalition is working to close the state’s two large youth prisons — Bon Air and Beaumont — and redirect resources from youth incarceration to a true continuum of effective community programs that hold youth accountable while ensuring they have the tools, skills and supports to stay out of trouble in the future. In West Virginia, the ACLU of West Virginia led a successful campaign to stop a new for-profit institution called the Dazzy Vance Mountain Resort and is now working to ensure that the state reinvests costs savings into a range of community alternatives for young people and their families including teen courts, mentoring, restorative justice, and community wraparound services for youth with mental health needs.

I believe it's long past time to close these inhumane, ineffective, wasteful factories of failure once and for all.”

These campaigns are carrying out a range of activities to build support for community alternatives to youth incarceration, including organizing community forums and film screenings, lifting the voices of young people and families affected by the system, and sharing research and data about best practices in youth justice. Find out how you can get involved in a state campaign.

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Get the latest updates on state efforts to close youth prisons, reduce incarceration and invest in community-based alternatives to incarceration.
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