The Pitfalls of Separating Youth in Prison: A Critique of Age-Segregated Incarceration
Alexandra Cox and Laura S. Abrams (eds.), The Palgrave International Handbook of Youth Imprisonment (Palgrave Macmillan, 2021, Forthcoming)
17 Pages Posted: 21 Oct 2019 Last revised: 21 Jan 2021
Date Written: January 20, 2021
Age-segregated incarceration – the separation of youth and adults in criminal custody – has established itself as a legal and human rights norm. Contrary to conventional wisdom, I argue that it suffers from five acute pitfalls. First, it perpetuates age essentialism – the historically recent belief that certain age groups are inherently different and must therefore abide by constrictive (and questionable) age norms. Second, age-segregated incarceration sanctions harshness and apathy toward separated adults, whom it deems less vulnerable and less corrigible. Third, age segregation helps prison present itself as humane and effective, while also entrenching its punitive fixation with blame. Fourth, in conflating protection with age segregation, this practice harms youth: it downplays the risk they face from their peers and the prison staff, overlooks the support some imprisoned adults can offer, and occasions harmful practices such as solitary confinement. Finally, age segregation, in and beyond prison, has a long and ongoing history of oppressing disempowered communities by severing their intergenerational ties. Alternatives such as non-segregated incarceration, age-specific penal reforms, or more refined segregation fail to address – and in some respects aggravate – these pitfalls. What is needed, instead, is to simultaneously undo essentialism and carcerality.
Keywords: youth justice, juvenile justice, criminal justice, prisons, incarceration, imprisonment, children, childhood, children's rights, essentialism, abolition, separation, segregation
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