Incarcerated Youth Need Books to Combat Their Increased Isolation

Ashley Smith-Juarez, Juvenile Justice Information Exchange •
stack of books.

Opinion

As a society, we owe a special commitment to youth in custody. Incarceration of any kind causes very real trauma and doing so at a time when young people are growing and learning only compounds the trauma. Our juvenile justice system must seek not to punish, but to support these children’s social, emotional and educational development. 

In normal circumstances, our national juvenile justice system does not always serve these children properly. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, we are failing our community’s children.

With the current health restrictions around the pandemic, youth in custody have extremely limited or no in-person visitation from family and friends. They’re also increasingly isolated from their peers and staff inside secure facilities to protect their physical health. While this isolation follows guidelines to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in facilities that are highly susceptible to outbreaks, it also has serious negative consequences for these children’s mental health and wellbeing.  

A journal published earlier this year in the Elsevier Public Health Emergency Collection found that while the motivation for isolating incarcerated youth is different than the motivation for solitary confinement, the potential harmful effects are the same. According to the Juvenile Law Center, incarceration can cause permanent psychological damage and stunt educational development. It is up to all of us to mitigate the impact of this well-intended isolation on mental health and remember that it is important to recognize that youth in custody are children — with children’s needs. 

This is why the Clinton Foundation works to co-create a more nurturing, humanizing and resilience-building juvenile justice system. We recognize the impact of trauma on children and the need to contribute to protective factors for children in residential confinement. 

When I reached out to partners at the Center for Excellent Education in Alternative Settings (CEEAS) to ask how we might help mitigate the negative consequences of isolation, I was told that one of the greatest needs for their youth was “books, books, books!” So, through a new effort between Clinton Health Matters Initiative and Too Small to Fail, the Foundation’s early childhood initiative, we worked to secure support from Penguin Young Readers, who generously donated new high-quality books to distribute. CEEAS identified five secure youth facilities in Arkansas, Arizona, Louisiana, Wisconsin and Wyoming to receive these resources.

Through my work with partners and communities, I know that youth in custody crave reading and that they are eager to apply their perspectives through journaling, discussions and reports. Books can provide an outlet to pass time, spur imagination, transport young people from their surroundings and much more as they have the potential and appetite for joy and a successful future as any other child. 

Our commitment to these children is even more urgent considering the disparities for youth incarceration. Consider the youth who was recently placed in detention for failing to log in to online school. And, for the more serious manifestations of trauma and youth expressing their frustration, anger and desperation in ways that harm property or people, youth without privilege, youth of color or youth who live in low-socioeconomic households are more often referred to law enforcement rather than a mental health counselor or social worker.

All too often youth in detention are characterized as early-onset lifetime offenders when they are children, wounded by historic, community and individual traumas, with developing brains that need to be nurtured and protected. These youth are resilient and can get healing and growth from mental health services and empowering social work. 

Increasing reading opportunities in juvenile justice settings is an important step we can take. Research shows that 30 minutes of reading can help lower students’ blood pressure, heart rate and feelings of psychological distress. Reading has also been shown to increase empathy, the ability to sense other people’s emotions coupled with the ability to imagine what other people might be thinking or feeling. Empathy is a key practice of restorative justice intended to reduce recidivism.

I’m grateful for our partners and the shared vision for fueling the imaginations of young people using books. We’d like to continue and expand this work and encourage others to do the same. Youth facilities are able to accept paperback, age-appropriate book donations. If you’re so inclined, contact the education provider at the nearest youth detention facility and ask how you can provide books for residents. Our efforts to promote fairness and nurturing in the juvenile justice system can begin with reading, but it must not end there. 

Ashley Smith-Juarez serves as director of the Clinton Health Matters Initiative overseeing work to improve health and wellbeing across the U.S. She is an advocate for equity and holistic child development having served as a teacher, dropout prevention specialist, education philanthropist and Duval County (Florida) School Board member.

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