Illinois Must End Youth Incarceration, Not “Transform” It

Even amid a deadly pandemic, in the U.S., there are over 37,000 children currently detained or incarcerated in environments where social distancing is impossible. The most recent update from Chicago’s Juvenile Temporary Detention Center was in November, when the chief judge’s office announced that at least 63 youth and 73 adult staff had been infected with the coronavirus.

Those who have managed to avoid this deadly disease are still forced to endure the torturous conditions that are inherent to incarceration and are exacerbated by the lockdown conditions imposed to stop transmission of the coronavirus.

Unfortunately, the state of Illinois seems poised to continue incarcerating children for a long time to come. In early February, it was announced that policymakers plan to spend millions on a new youth prison, even as they gesture toward the important themes of restorative justice that have been developed by grassroots movements and directly impacted individuals.

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton were elected as progressive reformers, so they use the language of reform and transformation even as they entrench the same systems of criminalization and incarceration that have proven time and again to be completely ineffective and traumatically harmful. When announcing his “21st Century Transformation Model” for the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice (IDJJ), an ostensibly smaller, community-based and “restorative” model, Governor Pritzker highlighted the shameful reality that 70 percent of all Illinois’s incarcerated youth are Black even though they make up just 15 percent of the total youth in the state. Pritzker also pointed out the fact that youth incarceration and probation have no positive effect on recidivism rates. Nevertheless, Pritzker is poised to continue this failed practice of incarcerating youth.

When announcing their plan for a newly renovated youth prison, Lieutenant Governor Stratton stated, “The new Illinois Youth Center Lincoln will be a bright, life affirming, trauma-informed, and restorative place for some of Illinois’ most vulnerable youth,” despite the fact that there is absolutely no way that separating children from their families and communities and locking them in cages can be “life-affirming” or “restorative.” Incarceration is traumatizing for every child who is forced to experience it, even if the facilities are smaller and closer to home. We must stop incarcerating youth altogether, and instead invest in the life-giving resources that eliminate the root causes of harm and “crime.”

By calling his prison-building plan the “Transformation Model,” Governor Pritzker is invoking language often used by abolitionists to justify a path that is antithetical to abolition. According to Generation Five, an organization that works to interrupt and repair the harms of child sexual abuse, the following are the three main principles of transformative justice:

  • Individual justice and collective liberation are equally important, mutually supportive, and fundamentally intertwined — the achievement of one is impossible without the achievement of the other.
  • The conditions that allow violence to occur must be transformed in order to achieve justice in individual instances of violence. Therefore, Transformative Justice is both a liberating politic and an approach for securing justice.
  • State and systemic responses to violence, including the criminal legal system and child welfare agencies, not only fail to advance individual and collective justice but also condone and perpetuate cycles of violence.

It is clear that the “21st Century Transformation Model” falls far short of achieving any vision of transformative justice. The “Illinois Youth Centers,” or child prisons, by definition cannot be restorative. This has been demonstrated time and again in Illinois and across the country, traumatizing and shortening the lives of countless children in the process.

The extent of this carceral trauma was illuminated in November 2020, through a report produced by Northwestern University’s Children and Family Justice Center, which held convenings in Illinois “youth centers” to ask those held there what they thought about their current conditions. The report’s author, Denzel Burke, was himself formerly incarcerated in an Illinois youth prison, and he writes that, “The physical and emotional conditions of Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice (IDJJ) facilities — combined with the racial disparity visible in the youth prison population — create a traumatizing setting for children. Young people in prison described conditions of constant surveillance: they are locked in their rooms with a total lack of privacy, ever-glaring lights, and little to do ‘but stare at the walls.’”

One youth reported that, “People get beat up every day. We can’t ever get clean because there’s mold dropping on us and mice crawling in your bed…. We wake up in the morning and have bad food, but at least we don’t have lice anymore.”

Further, even before the coronavirus locked down the prisons, most youth reported feeling lonely and depressed. Even the IDJJ staff recognized the trauma inflicted by incarceration, with one interviewee noting that, “a lot of these youth are really hurting,” and another employee stating that the conditions of IDJJ facilities ensure that they are “not a place that makes you want to change [but instead] a place that makes you more mad.” Both the incarcerated youth and the staff recognize that incarceration always makes the situation worse, and yet the state of Illinois asserts that this multimillion-dollar trauma machine is the only option to address what is really a complex problem of youth poverty, not “crime.”

Governor Pritzker and Lieutenant Governor Stratton should listen to these directly impacted individuals who know that the answer is not further investment in the failed model of incarceration, but instead investment in true community resources like housing, mental and physical health care, education, jobs, and much more. As Burke writes in the Northwestern report:

Participants indicated that various forms of community investment and addressing human needs could prevent future harm. Their ideas included job training, affordable housing, educational programming, mental health resources, revamped parks and recreation, and food banks. As one young man shared, “My mom got in a car accident and couldn’t work, so we had no money, and I had to steal. That’s why I’m here. Just needed some support. I just needed somewhere with food that was warm, couches — it doesn’t have to be all that, just somewhere to be.”

Thanks to the efforts of organizers and people directly impacted by the trauma of youth criminalization and incarceration, Illinois has reduced its youth incarceration rate by 41 percent between 2001 and 2011. In addition, the state has closed three youth prisons since 2013, due to the efforts of groups like Project NIA, a grassroots organization committed to ending youth incarceration that was founded by the abolitionist organizer Mariame Kaba. The Final 5 Campaign is another such group dedicated to the closure of the final five youth prisons in Illinois. When Governor Pritzker announced the plan for the new youth prison in Lincoln, which is expected to cost at least $21 million, the campaign immediately released a statement in opposition. Crucially, the authors ask:

Imagine if Governor Pritzker divided up this $21 million to provide comprehensive mental health resources for Illinois youth who have suffered the loss of a family member due to gun violence. Imagine if he decided to build shelters for youth without houses in the winter throughout the state. Imagine if he invested this money in organizations already doing the work of restorative justice, harm reduction, and reentry support such as GoodKids MadCity, Circles & Ciphers, or Free Write, or invested in high school student groups doing similar work within their schools such as PEACE Group at Urbana High School. Imagine if he gave vulnerable youth direct cash payments to help provide for basic essentials. Imagine if he invested that money in public schools in low-income neighborhoods to ensure that youth in these communities have access to comprehensive extracurricular programs.

There may still be time to stop this disastrous plan before it is finalized, and the Final 5 Campaign will be at the center of that fight. The campaign will continue to call for the closing of all youth prisons, including the “Illinois Youth Center Lincoln,” if it ends up being opened.

While the past year’s uprisings have bolstered the struggle against criminalization and incarceration, youth continue to be separated from their families and locked in cages in Illinois and throughout the country. This system has been built and fortified over many years, and it continues to be protected by entrenched interests, such as corrupt police unions and racist politicians. Therefore, the struggle continues, and those of us dedicated to true justice must continue to protest and fight for a world where no child is locked behind bars.