Remembering and Forgetting Incarcerated Children

I’ve written two blog posts on children as paratext and effigies, and I hope to continue the topic of children’s reduced autonomy in this post. After reading the “Of Levees and Prisons” chapter in Unfathomable City, I wanted to write a blog post on juvenile detention, control, and the even further reduced autonomy incarcerated children face. 

New Orleans is described as the “most incarcerated city in the most incarcerated state in the most incarcerated nation in the world,” mirroring the ways in which “even the [Mississippi] river has been arrested and imprisoned” (Solnit and Snedeker 55). Both the “levees-only policy” and “mass incarceration [have] become an answer to these two different but historically intertwined issues of ‘public safety’” (55), but both have failed spectacularly. As the levees failed to protect the people of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, mass incarceration has failed to protect the public. 987 people were killed by the police in 2017, and the “American criminal justice system holds almost 2.3 million people.” The government, via passing racially coded laws and targeting people of color as victims of police brutality, has made the public victims through structural violence. This structural violence lasts throughout the incarcerated person’s life as well, since they are marked with a criminal record. Included in this violence are children, specifically children of color, who are currently incarcerated in the nation’s “1,852 juvenile correctional facilities.”

There are thousands of incarcerated children in America. 53,000 in fact. And “[n]early one in ten is held in an adult jail or prison.” Besides the fact that many children are tried as adults and reside in adult prisons, the “problems of the criminal justice system are mirrored in the juvenile system: racial disparities, punitive conditions, pretrial detention, and overcriminalization,” meaning that the same victimization of the adult public is faced by children. The treatment of incarcerated children in long term facilities mirrors adult prison as well, but the linguistic way the prisons have been marked is different. Long term juvenile detention centers are “[o]ften called ‘training schools,’” and they are “typically the largest and oldest facilities, sometimes holding hundreds of youths behind razor wire fences, where they may be subjected to pepper spray, mechanical restraints, and solitary confinement.” The term “training school” masks the cruelty and inhumanity faced by incarcerated children. In an article aptly named “Locked away and forgotten,” the author outlines how juvenile detention facilities in Arkansas lacked hygiene supplies, proper heating, sanitation, clothes, staff, and attention, and a man she interviewed found “adult prison to be nicer than the juvenile facilities.” Juvenile detention facilities do not focus on “rehabilitation” at all—they focus on reduced autonomy, humiliation, and abuse instead.

In the crucial process of memory and forgetting, incarcerated children are forgotten. In the widespread conversation about mass incarceration, incarcerated children are rarely in the foreground. The wider dominant culture has attempted to contain children of color, and the water level, through man-made structures that are ineffectual in promoting “public safety,” and instead, promote structural abuse of those who are already oppressed. Since children under eighteen are considered minors, their names cannot be revealed in relation to current or prior incarceration status. One of my many questions is thus: do we need a marked identity—or specifically a name—in order to be remembered?

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