The toll of juvenile incarceration in Arkansas

Published on
August 1, 2018

Hundreds of Arkansas children are thrown behind bars every year. Most haven’t committed a violent crime.

Life in detention is hell. In recent years, findings made by federal agents and a series of watchdog reports conducted by the nonprofit Disability Rights Arkansas have revealed what children face when they are incarcerated.

In the winter, teens in state custody have been confined to unheated dorms during below-freezing nights. They shower in mold-infested stalls and live with shortages of basic supplies such as winter coats and shampoo. Pools of standing water sit in some hallways. Living quarters reek of urine. Boys-only facilities are short-staffed at night and local police are called into to subdue fights and riots, resorting to pepper spray in some instances.

Educational programming is often inadequate. The state recently slashed teaching positions at the facilities. Kids sit in front of a computer instead. Others are on months-long waiting lists to take the ACT or GED. Those with behavioral or intellectual disabilities don’t receive adequate learning accommodations.

The juvenile correctional facilities are understaffed, leaving youths who struggle with substance abuse disorder to wait long periods between drug treatment sessions. Few get enough one-on-one time with a counselor or social worker.

Before children get to these state-run facilities they sit in county juvenile detention centers for weeks, often months. Services are scarce here. No substance abuse treatment or mental health therapy. Little to no schooling. The time served here doesn’t count. The clock won’t begin until they get to the state-run centers.

Certain county youth jails have troubled histories. In White River, for example, juvenile correctional officers conspired with one another and their supervisors to oppress youths and then cover up their abuses by falsifying use-of-force documents, federal investigators found. Kids were strapped to emergency restraint chairs for hours without reason. Guards pepper-sprayed compliant youths and then threw them in their cells without allowing them to undergo decontamination. Some were locked alone in a cell known as “Max 1,” which subjected its occupants to extreme temperatures during summer and winter months. Other juvenile facilities would send so-called problem kids to White River, where it was understood that staff there would carry out such punishments.

Lately, local advocates and policymakers have focused on the dire youth facility conditions. A group of lawmakers and juvenile court judges are pushing diversion efforts so less kids end up in these places.

But what happens to kids in the system when they get out?

National research says they’ll have more needs than their peers. They’re more likely to suffer from mental illnesses and to consider committing suicide. Chances are, they’ll make less money as adults and will take on less meaningful work. About 40 percent have learning disabilities and face barriers to educational opportunities and struggle to re-enroll in school. Many school administrators and teachers are reluctant to take back young offenders. And too many return to prison, through either the juvenile or adult systems.

Despite the known risks, Arkansas lawmakers continue to adopt state budgets that spend nearly $28 million a year on locking up children. That’s $238 a day per kid. Only a few million go to programs intended to help youths successfully reintegrate into society.

There aren’t many stories about the kids who are jailed and what it is like for them, their families and their communities when they return home. Juvenile justice reform efforts have a checkered history. But advocates now contend Arkansas is ripe for reform.

“After Incarceration” will investigate how serving jail time affects Arkansas children and what their lives look like afterwards. Did they suffer from post-traumatic stress or consider suicide? Are they involved with gangs? Use drugs? Are they continually referred to court? Did they return to lockup? Have their personal goals changed? Do they feel behind in school? Were learning disabilities addressed in jail? How did relatives respond to their return?

The project for the 2018 National Fellowship will quantify how long adjudicated youths are really spending behind bars, counting how long they’re in county facilities, as well as the time spent at state facilities. Juvenile court proceedings are sealed, so the public’s knowledge about youth sentencing is rather limited.

“After Incarceration” will also examine whether the state Division of Youth Services is properly supporting vulnerable youth through publicly funded aftercare or reentry programs. How can Arkansas improve its aftercare? Will Arkansas’ participation in a national pilot program that focuses on creating reentry benchmarks improve children’s lives? Can state officials replicate successful juvenile justice reform models adopted in other places? Is Arkansas ready for reform?

[Photo by jmiller291 via Flickr.]