Detention facilities and adult jails that house minors are often not equipped to treat mental health issues that are pre-existing or arise as a result of incarceration. Many facilities are overcrowded and understaffed; the neglect and violence that result only add to the issues already faced by youth in the system.
The purpose of the 591 youth detention centers in the United States is to provide temporary supervision (days or months) of minors who pose a high risk of re-offending prior to trial and/or not attending their trial. However, these facilities are being used more frequently and are now filled with minors who do not fit the high-risk profile for which they are intended. According to the 2004 Census of Juveniles in Residential Placement Databook, 70 percent of minors being detained at these facilities are being held for nonviolent offenses.
Researchers have determined that up to two-thirds of minors in detention centers meet the criteria for having a mental health disorder and more than one-third need intensive ongoing clinical care. This is twice the rate of the general population for the same age group. It is an unfortunate cycle because these detention centers have become somewhat of a dumping ground for minors with mental health problems, however, these problems seem to be exacerbated by the system’s infrastructure. For instance, it was found that in one-third of the incarcerated youth who have depression, the disorder presented after they were incarcerated, most likely as a result of their situation. Additionally, it has been found that the unsafe environmental conditions make these teens more likely to turn to suicide or self-harm.
According to the 2004 Special Investigations Division Report of the House of Representatives, at least one-third of detention centers in the United States are overcrowded. This means that these minors do not have access to as many resources for mental health, education or privacy. The lack of treatment leads to higher rates of depression and suicidal ideation. According to the United States Department of Justice, incarcerated minors have two to four times the suicide rate of youth in the general American population.
Not only does incarceration have a negative impact on the mental and physical health of minors in the system, but it also interferes with their education and employment, proving to have long-term effects. More specifically, incarceration has been shown to correlate with a reduction of future earnings and an individual’s ability to remain in the workforce.
Detention centers for minors in New York City have been deemed “indistinguishable from a prison” by Herbert Sterz, former Deputy Mayor of New York. Minors are only held in these facilities prior to trial, before the Court has judged whether they are delinquent. It is sending minors a mixed message then to be held against their will in a prison-like environment, despite the presumption of innocence in our judicial system. Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist said that the “pretrial detention of a juvenile gives rise to injuries comparable to those associated with the imprisonment of an adult.”
The Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act states that juveniles “will not be detained or confined in any institution in which they have contact with adult inmates.” Despite this, every day, approximately 7,500 minors are incarcerated in adult jails. This is because the law does not apply to minors who are charged as adults, since they are facing a criminal proceeding and not a delinquency proceeding. Being jailed with adults has profound psychological and physical repercussions for minors, as it is getting increasingly difficult to keep minors safe in these environments due to overcrowding and understaffing.
According to the 2007 Campaign for Youth Justice Report, even minors held in adult jails for a short period of time are at a higher risk for suicide. Two-thirds of male minors and three-fourths of female minors in the adult prison system meet the criteria for at least one psychiatric disorder, but the jails are not equipped to identify and respond to their needs.
Minors incarcerated in adult jails are at higher risk of sexual assault than other inmates. In 2005, 21 percent of victims of inmate-on-inmate sexual violence were under the age of 18. This is a startling statistic, considering the low percentage of the population that is made up by minors in these adult jails. It has been determined that the psychological effects of being in constant fear of sexual violence and/or witnessing sexual violence occur toward someone else can have deep psychological effects for a minor even if he or she is never physically victimized.
If your child has been through the jail system or is facing detainment or incarceration, your concern for his or her mental health is valid and necessary. Sovereign Health Rancho San Diego specializes in treating substance abuse, mental health and co-occurring disorders in adolescents and teenagers. Call 866-615-7266 to speak with a professional today.
Written by Courtney Howard, Sovereign Health Group writer