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Human Impact of Crowding in Juvenile Detention

NCJ Number
Journal for Juvenile Justice and Detention Services Volume: 14 Issue: 2 Dated: Fall 1999 Pages: 43-51
Sue Burrell
Date Published
9 pages
Observations of juvenile detention centers around the country revealed that youth and staff in crowded juvenile facilities may experience profound indignities and a range of physical and emotional harm, but official discussions of population and square footage requirements often overlook the personal experiences of inmates and staff.
The juvenile system is intended to care humanely for youth who truly need to be severely confined. However, conditions in one overcrowded juvenile facility included strong unpleasant odors of sweat and urine; some walls and floors smeared with blood, mucous, and feces; halls littered with piles of laundry and rolled-up mattresses; and loud sounds of yelling and the slamming of heavy doors. Staff reported more fights as crowding increased, a focus on structure and safety rather than rehabilitation, and difficulties in separating rival gang members from one another. Psychiatric testimony about the impact of crowding confirmed a rise in violent incidents, sexual acting out, and suicide attempts. Some youths spent 6 months or more in this short-term facility awaiting placement or commitment to another facility. Staff often worked 16 hours a day for several consecutive days due to increased operational needs caused by population pressures. Inappropriate detention decisions, systemic inefficiencies, and failure to consider other service or placement options exacerbated the crowding and its effects. However, knowledge exists regarding how to change this disturbing situation; juvenile justice professionals in jurisdictions around the country have successfully grappled with crowding and practices contributing to unnecessary juvenile detention. 10 reference notes (Author abstract modified)