If this was anywhere else, it would be a human rights violation. But it happened in the state of California, in the state's juvenile prison system.
The situation is not better in other states. Once, I ended up in juvenile hall in South Bend, Indiana, and even there - not a state juvenile prison, but the step below - the conditions would make it impossible for any person there too long to live a normal life afterward.
When I was in South Bend, I was in the St. Joseph Juvenile Justice Center, because I had run away from an abusive situation at home. When I was caught, I actually asked to be put there, because otherwise I would be returned to my parents. I figured that there, I could at least find some way to get out.
When I was taken into the center, I had not eaten, drank, or slept in almost two full days. I was dehydrated, exhausted, hungry, and almost hysterical. In spite of this, getting all my stuff checked in took another two hours, during which I couldn't sleep or eat. I was sent to my cell (about 7 feet by six, with a metal toilet/sink combination, a hard thin mattress, and a thin blanket), where I slept like a baby until I was woken up - three hours later - by one of the staff knocking on the metal door, screaming "WAKE UP, ARE YOU DEAF OR SOMETHING??"
I weakly explained that I hadn't eaten or drunk in two days. She told me she'd see if she could maybe get me some juice - then instantly insisted on a urine sample. After not drinking anything for two days, the odds of my being able to...er..."produce" on demand were nil, particularly since someone was watching. She instantly yelled that I had to be able to do this, and that I would drink water until I could. She left and appeared again almost instantly with a cup, demanding that I fill it and drink from it until I could give her what she was asking for.
After eleven or twelve cups, she gave up and said I'd have to do it later in the day, because school was about to start. She informed me of the policy for walking in the hallway - no talking, heads down, hands behind your back, pants rolled up, shirt tucked in, and no looking at the boys. Not only were the rules in place - the girls in my cell block had to chant them in unison before going into the hallway. In the few minutes before school when I was allowed out of my cell (newcomers were under "lockdown" for 48 hours, prohibited from leaving their cell for anything but an hour of exercise and two hours of school as well as from having any posessions in their cell), i noticed the other girls leafing through some copies of Seventeen magazine and braiding each other's hair. I was sniffling and my eyes were red, and one of them said, "first time here, huh?" I said yeah, I had run away.
And then, something very peculiar happened - the girls asked me what was going on in the world. The most exposure to news they got was in their girls' magazines and new inmates. I told them a little, but the guard noticed, and I was told that I was under lockdown and shouldn't be socializing.
In another part of the cell block the "grandmas" were reading to the girls from the bible, talking about how they should believe in Jesus and that he would absolve them of whatever they'd done that got them there. The grandmas were elderly women who volunteered at the center to distribute religious information, and they were, as I was to later find out, the only allowable means of emotional support there.
"School" was a joke. Twelve year olds and eighteen year olds were in the same classroom, being taught the same thing. They graduated anyone who made it through what should have been their twelfth grade year, it seemed. There was a "library," too, which I was sent out to after my dry sobs wouldn't stop. The library had almost no books over an eighth grade reading level. Looking for help or sympathy, I spilled my situation out to the guard who'd woken me up. She stopped me before I could get much out. "I don't want to hear about your personal life. That's yours, no one else's, and you shouldn't be talking about it. If you need to I can get you an appointment with a counselor or you can talk to one of the grandmas."
I told her both sounded good, and she said I'd have an appointment later that afternoon. When I talked to a grandma, she nodded, slowly, smiling. She said what I knew she'd say - that Jesus could help. I felt totally alone, an atheist in a place where you're supposed to turn to gods all the time. And that's when I stopped crying, and I couldn't cry anymore.
I had lunch, consisting of disgusting salisbury steak - it must have been the rejects from school lunchrooms everywhere - and mashed potatoes. But I ate it all, and wanted more. A girl looked at me as I said it was bad, and said, "well, after you're here for a little while, you forget what food really tastes like."
The counseling session later that day was fifteen minutes long and consisted of being told that I was making up my story about my mother's abuse - after all, the counselor concluded with a shake of her head, if I had really had all those things happen, wouldn't I be crying about it when I told her?
Going back to my cell, I noticed rules about what could and couldn't be taken into cells. No pens or pencils - or writing instruments of any variety. No soap (no soap?) or other hygiene products (I learned later that such products were kept as incentives - if you misbehaved, so much for being clean). No more than 4 books, and all must be paperback. No more than two personal letters. The list went on, but I was too disheartened to really notice it all.
As we lined up to go to the gym to exercise, I was admonished again not to talk about "personal things" with the other girls. We walked down the hallway and into the gym. Exercise consisted of walking in circles around the gym - but at least I could talk. The conversation stayed off of personal topics, but still, things would remind me of the fact that I was going to be returned to my parents, and I started crying.
When we got back from exercise, the guard called a meeting of all the girls. "From now until when I say so," she said, "There will be no talking in this unit. People have lately been talking too much about personal things, and personal things lead to rumors, and rumors lead to fights. So let's just not talk at all. Anyone violating this will be on lockdown for 24 hours."
No talking. Necessary hygiene products as an incentive for behavior. Incompetent counselors, school that taught nothing, no emotional support, religious indoctrination, rules that were arbitrary and made no sense - these were the norm. No one could protest there, no one could speak out against it.
After spending a year or two there, as some girls did, there would be no way they could live a normal life. Simply from a psychological point of view, bottling up your "personal life" and all your thoughts for years will produce a person who will need, at a bare minimum, years of good therapy. Nothing can undo all the damage that kind of internalizing creates.
The world there is so unlike the real world - no real food, no news, no looking at members of the opposite sex - that being there would almost automatically entail losing the context of the world. When those kids get out of there, they aren't going to be able to adjust easily to a bigger world with fewer rules - and that's why many of them were back there for a third or fourth time. It becomes the world they're most familiar and comfortable with, and the only one they can survive in. They've missed out on real education and real friendships, so the closed-in environment of prison becomes the only one they fit in with.
This is even in places that don't physically abuse or neglect prisoners, as some do. Practices in the place where I was, I have read, are fairly mild compared to other places. In comparison to adult minimum and medium security prisons, where inmates have cable television and reading material and can even get a college education, the juvenile justice system is appalling. Perhaps this is intended to scare young people away from committing more crimes, but the evidence shows that it doesn't - repeat crimes abound after they get out of the system.
These kids often haven't done very much wrong. One girl I saw was in for aggravated battery - after her father had hit her and beat her, she stabbed him. Others were in for lesser things: repeated petty theft, truancy, and drug posession. Instead of trying to help the root causes of these problems, instead of counseling these young people and helping them overcome their mental problems, instead of educating them so they didn't need to be part of drug culture anymore, they let them languish in a completely unnuturing environment that seems almost designed to ensure repeat offenders.
The juvenile justice system in this country needs change, and it needs change now. Children, especially ones who have committed relatively small offenses, need to be educated and brought out of their culture of poverty if they are to have any hope of rising above their old habits. They need to be nurtured and helped to grow, not kept down and made to make themselves as small as possible. Without this change in policy, we are only asking for generations of repeat criminals to come.