“First Lady Hillary Clinton referred to certain youths as ‘super-predators.’”
Since its infancy, the United States has impacted children through the penal establishment. Youth incarceration has taken many different forms, from boarding schools for indigenous children, to institutions that aimed to “pray the gay away” for LGBTQ youth, funneling children into legalized second-class citizenship through Japanese internment camps, juvenile detention or underfunded schooling. The criminalization of youth has influenced social crises that have defined our country, like lynching.
According to data from the Census of Juveniles in Residential Placement, over 46,000 juveniles were in some type of placement in state, local, or private facilities in 2015. One trend has been consistent throughout the history of the U.S.: Youth incarceration has disproportionately affected people of color and minorities.
Legal distinctions related to age provide a unique hurdle for young people in the penal system, who face restrictive rights based on their age in a country that benefits from profit through imprisonment. Understanding the history of youth incarceration requires examining how this country has defined the age of a “child,” and how they should be treated in the eyes of the law. Law from England influenced the earliest states, which distinguished “infant” from “adult.” Infants were seven years old or younger and could not be charged with a felony; adults were over the age of 14. Anyone from the age of 7 to 14 were within a “gray zone,” according to the American Bar Association. The “age of majority” or “emancipation” is when a citizen is no longer considered a minor or is legally exempt from the financial support of their parents or guardians, and it varies by state.
To better understand how incarceration has impacted young people in the U.S., we’re here to explain.
The colonies that became the United States relied on children as its very first laborers, who, technically, were incarcerated.
Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class In America explains how the U.S. — before it was actualized with founding documents — was seen by Great Britain “not as an Eden of opportunity, but as a giant rubbish heap that could be transformed into productive terrain where expendable people — waste people — would be unloaded from England; their labour would germinate a distant Wasteland.” This perception of English immigrants included British ideas of labor and indentured servitude.
For orphans or the children of beggars in Britain, this meant active exploitation by landowners and business owners in need of labor in what would become America. Indentured servitude proved to be a viable solution to the economic needs of the new colony across the sea. One of the main companies that offered contracts for indentured servitude in exchange for passage to Virginia was The Virginia Company of London, which settled in Jamestown in 1607 to “bring profit to its shareholders and to establish an English colony in the New World.”
“The U.S. created a legalized class of laborers that could be cleverly trapped into forced labor for the sake of profit..”
More than 50% of those who were indentured servants in colonies south of New England were younger than 19 years old, with the youngest of them being six years old. Child servants could be punished by their parents or tradesmen for not following work orders, but also could be punished with fines or whippings by the colony court system. Historian Richard Hayes Phillips listed the names of more than 5,000 children kidnapped from Ireland, Scotland, England, and New England, and sold into slavery in Maryland and Virginia between 1660 and 1720.
In 1661, Virginia became one of the first states to acknowledge slavery in its laws, and by the next year, laws were passed to include the “illegitimate children” of indentured servants. These laws led to a shift from white indentured servants as a prominent portion of the labor force to African slaves. The laws passed in 1662 in Virginia made clear distinctions that declared all children “borne in this country shall be held bond or free only according to the condition of the mother.” This law resulted in the blanket enslavement of all youth born to black women and a decrease in the amount of white indentured servants used in the colonies during the 1660’s.
By establishing the colonies with an economic system dependent upon the indentured or slave labor of the most vulnerable in society, Britain and the emerging politics of the U.S. created a legalized class of laborers that could be cleverly trapped into forced labor for the sake of profit. This strategy is a precursor for what many private prisons do today, according to the ACLU.
Indigenous children were victims of state “boarding schools,” which started in the 1880’s, forcing young native people to unlearn their customs.
Before the arrival of the English, both the French and Spanish had arrived to North and South America. All groups treated indigenous people as subhuman, but the English committed widespread genocide of indigenous people through various methods. According to an article co-authored by historian Brett Rushforth in Slate, at least 10,000 members of indigenous tribes were enslaved from 1660 to 1760 in New France.
The Indian Removal Act of 1830 was implemented as a way to relocate members of indigenous tribes and establish treaties with all tribes east of the Mississippi River. Two decades years later, the establishment of Indian Appropriations Act of 1851 would set a new standard for creating “reservations,” where indigenous tribes would be forced to live. In addition to displacement and the establishment of reservations, English colonizers created boarding schools to virtually turn indigenous children into prisoners of the state.
The first federally funded, off-reservation boarding school was the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, established in 1879. Many of the boarding schools that would come to exist in the U.S. were based on the model of Richard Henry Pratt, who coined the phrase, “kill the Indian and save the man.”
Children were forced to take new names, change clothing, and cut their hair to fit the standards of white society, and about 100,000 young people went through these schools from 1879 to the 1960s, where “contagious diseases flourished” due to overcrowding, according to a paper by North Dakota State University assistant professor Denise K. Lajimodiere. An NPR Morning Edition report cited accountsof children at the schools being forced to do hard labor. Incidents of sexual abusereportedly occurred throughout the schools, too.
With the establishment of school systems specifically meant to erase the culture of indigenous children, the U.S. kept many children against their will and reportedly subjected them to abuse. The federal stamp of approval through decades of funding shows that incarceration can happen under the guise of education.
The juvenile court system was then established, but many children were incarcerated just for being poor.
Throughout the 19th century, there was a pivotal shift in how the legal system began to treat white juveniles under the age of 18. According to the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, before the establishment in 1825 of the first reformatory for youth in the U.S., the New York House of Refuge, much of America was facing “high rates of child poverty and neglect,” which led to youth being incarcerated for nonviolent crimes in facilities with “hardened adult criminals and the mentally ill in large overcrowded and decrepit penal institutions.”
Still, some children sent to the New York House of Refuge were forced to make items like brushes or brass nails, according to the New York State Archives. Although founded by a private group, the New York House of Refuge received state funds and by 1899, advocates for the reform of child delinquents were able to lobby for the first juvenile court in the history of the U.S. in Illinois. Similar reform schools were founded in other states.
Judge Julian Mack, one of the first judges on this court in Illinois, said the purpose of the juvenile court system was that a child “be made to know that he is face to face with the power of the state, but he should at the same time, and more emphatically, be made to feel that he is the object of its care and solicitude.” The success of child reform activists had established the first fully state-regulated form of youth incarceration.
Black men and youth were subjected to violence in the 1940’s via the criminal justice system.
In March,1944, two young black brothers, 14-year-old George Stinney, Jr., and his older brother, Johnnie, were arrested by police officers at their South Carolina home while their parents were away. The boys were accused of murdering two white girls.
“[The police] were looking for someone to blame it on, so they used my brother as a scapegoat,” George’s sister, Amie Ruffner, told WLTX-TV in 2014, as family members sought to clear his name.
Aside from a confession that was never written down by police, the police had no evidence that George allegedly made a confession in custody while being questioned without a lawyer or his parents present. Police continued to hold George in custody when his brother was released. The Jim Crow-era south was tense and for fear of a potential lynching — according to Equal Justice Initiative's Lynching in America online report, from 1877 to 1950, there were 4 reported lynchings in Clarendon County, where George lived— the boy was moved by police to a jail in the city of Columbia. By the time of the trial in April, the teen had still not been allowed to see his parents.
The jury selection, trial, and sentencing took one day and by the end of it, George was found guilty of murder. The defense attorney, who was white, called "few or no witnesses," according to The Washington Post. An all-white jury took ten minutes to deliberate after a two-hour trial, and no black people were allowed in the courtroom. George’s then-cellmate spoke to the press in 2014: “He said, 'Johnny, I didn't, didn't do it.’ He said, 'Why would they kill me for something I didn't do?' "
Just 83 days after his arrest, George Stinney, Jr., became the youngest person to be legally executed in the 20th century. Before he was strapped into a chair and electrocuted to death, he was made sit on a stack of books in order to be fitted with the mask correctly. He was was exonerated in 2014.
Conversion therapy programs were once state-sanctioned and used to incarcerate/enforce heteronormativity.
Only nine states and Washington, D.C. currently ban the use of conversion therapy on minors in the U.S., though state-sanctioned use of conversion therapy on minors against their will is nothing new.
From 1952 to 1973, homosexuality was technically considered a mental disorder by the American Psychological Association. During this time, state-sanctioned psychologists could easily recommend that young homosexuals be sent to institutions that resorted to aversion or electroconvulsive therapy to curb homosexual desires. In the 1960’s, Christian groups put ads in newspapers to curb the “growing homosexual movement.”
In the 1990’s, the U.S. witnessed a resurgence of ex-gay therapy, which included increased funding for advertisements from Christian organizations. According to the Movement Advancement Project, 73% of the LGBTQ population live in a state that has no laws restricting conversion therapy for minors.
The practice in the U.S. has involved shock therapy administered to genitals, sex therapy, or masturbatory reconditioning. According to a Human Rights Watch report, “highly rejected LGBTQ young people” are eight times more likely to commit suicide, which includes minors who are forced into conversion therapy. Government research from 2012 found “no evidence that sexual orientation can be altered through therapy, and that attempts to do so may be harmful.”
Without proper legal protection, minors can effectively be locked away because of their gender or sexual identity and forced to undergo destructive treatments that have no scientific legitimacy. By institutionalizing heteronormativity, the U.S. effectively allowed for the incarceration of LGBTQ youth who defied their parents by simply being who they are. With the discontinuation of some conversion therapy programs, like Love In Action’s Refuge camp, and the legalization of marriage equality in the U.S. in 2015, strides toward removing the notion of second-class citizenship for these citizens have been made, but 73% of America's LGBTQ population lives in states with no laws banning conversion therapy for minors.
Children were integral in the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960’s, and arrested because of it.
It was young people that pushed some of its boldest direct actions in the Civil Rights movement and faced the consequences, including incarceration. One of the most successful and influential campaigns of the Civil Rights Movement, The Freedom Rides, began in 1961 and involved many activists who were still teens.
Stokely Carmichael, who later went on to be a prominent figure in the Black Power Movement, was 19 years old when he participated in the Freedom Rides. For his participation in the Freedom Rides, Carmichael was arrested for disturbing the peace and sent to Parchman Farm in Mississippi, where hundreds of activists were jailed for a brief time at a “huge plantation, growing thousands of bales of cotton, which produced a handsome profit for the state of Mississippi.”
The strategy to demand legal segregation involved many fronts. Thousands of children were arrested, sprayed with water hoses, attacked by police dogs and kept in hog pens at the local fairgrounds in Alabama during the Birmingham Children’s Crusade, which occurred from May 2 to 5, 1963. Freeman A. Hrabowski, who was 12 years old at the time, noted being spit on by a local Birmingham police officer before being thrown into the paddy wagon and kept in jail for five days.
“The visual culture of the time had a greater impact than people realized,” he told the Civil Rights History Project. “For the first time, America saw the fire hoses, the dogs, the children being absolutely abused, and I’ll never forget the first day that I saw that after hearing Dr. King. I said, ‘Momma. Dad. I’ve gotta go.’ ”
In reality, it may be no coincidence that during the height of the Civil Rights Movement, the U.S. began to see cases that demanded clarification on what a juvenile's treatment in the justice system should be. A 1967 case involving a minor was eventually taken to the Supreme Court, which ruled that “neither the Fourteenth Amendment nor the Bill of Rights is for adults alone.” The U.S. has historically and disproportionately established the legal rights of white youth while violating and targeting youth of color, a tenet of institutionalized racism.
“Radical” youth, like those in the Black Panther Party, were targets of incarceration, too.
After the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968, many black Americans struggled to grapple with his strategy of nonviolent direct action. Furthermore, many black people who had previously been entangled with the prison system were looking for change.
Bobby Seale, a cofounder of the Black Panther Party, said, “When we started the Black Panther Party it was more or less based on where Malcolm [X] was coming from.” In The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Malcolm explores his time in foster homes as a child and going to prison at the age of 20.
The Black Panther Party was founded in 1966 by Huey Newton and Seale. One of the first official members was Bobby Hutton, who was 16 years old. Less than a year after the organization was founded, Hutton was arrested while protesting the Mulford Act in California, which aimed to prohibit carrying loaded firearms in public. He was later killed by Oakland police during a shootout just weeks before his 18th birthday. As the youngest founding member, he was the first Black Panther to die.
The FBI’s decision to target black militants during the 1960’s and 1970’s was later proven by documents revealed from the operation “COINTELPRO” which aimed to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize the activities of the black nationalist, hate-type organizations and groupings,” among other groups. COINTELPRO’s actions included wiretapping revolutionary activists, using paid informants to infiltrate Black Panther Party chapters, and plotting the assassination of figures like Fred Hampton, who was 21 at the time of his death.
By arresting black youth for their political interests, the prison system once again revealed one of its effects: to deter political upheaval that demanded equality and racial justice. These same governmental sentiments can be seen today in [the attempts by the state to target activists associated with the Black Lives Matter Movement.
The "war on drugs," which took place from 1971 to the present, had a huge impact on youth.
The "war on drugs" began in 1971 with President Richard Nixon, and its effects disproportionately targeted and jailed poor urban black people.
Under these policies, minority youth were racially profiled and brutalized, and since the Nixon adminisration's anti-drug campaign began in 1971, the U.S. has become “the world's leader in incarceration with 2.2 million people currently in the nation's prisons and jails — a 500% increase over the last 40 years”, according to The Sentencing Project. A 1991 Department of Justice report noted that from 1978 to 1986 blacks comprised about 45% of each year's admissions to state prisons.
In 1986, President Ronald Reagan allocated $1.7 billion to “fight the drug crisis,” which included $97 million for the construction of new prisons and mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses. From 1980 to 1990, the drug arrests of black youth went from 14.5% to 48.8% of overall juvenile arrests, according to a Human Rights Watch report.
Fuel was added to the fire by the Clinton administration with the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which expanded the scope of the death penalty and required longer prison sentences for non-violent crimes. Then-First Lady Hillary Clinton worked in support of this bill, and in 1996, referred to certain youth as “super predators.”
In effect, these policies created the school-to-prison pipeline, wherein children have been arrested for offenses like wearing the wrong socks to school. In present iterations, youth in places like New York City are “routinely removed from school altogether and placed in suspension centers, holding cells or juvenile detention lockups.” Despite general trends of youth incarceration decreasing — by at least 54% from 2001 to 2015 according to The Sentencing Project — of the roughly 48,000 in juvenile facilities surveyed, 46% of them are African American, a group that makes up roughly 16% of all youth in the U.S. Many are locked up for non-violent crimes.
Although some changes were made under the Obama administration to alleviate some of the effects of the war on drugs, like proposing budgets that “would spend more on treatment and prevention than law enforcement,” many wonder what the future of marginalized youth will be under the current administration, wherein Attorney General Jeff Sessions is aiming to implement policies akin to those of the war on drugs.
This story is part of Kids Incarcerated, a Teen Vogue series on youth incarceration in the United States for National Youth Justice Awareness Month