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Female incarceration reveals a cruel and broken justice system

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Netflix’s new docuseries “Girls Incarcerated” offers a window into the day-to-day experiences of female teens doing time at a Department of Corrections facility in Indiana.

The show reveals the isolation and hardships these girls experience, both inside and outside of the prison. Inside, with daily routines under constant supervision and the only entertainment stemming from interpersonal drama — fueled by short fuses and too much down time – one of the girls likens it to “high school times 1,000.”

{mosads}During the show, the girls also share their heart-breaking stories of what they experienced on the outside. Their stories eerily echo each other in terms of references to abuse, neglect, exposure to violence and attempts at self-harm. Girls Incarcerated brings us face to face with the harshest reality of the United States juvenile justice system — that these troubled teens are the girls we incarcerate.


Although boys are disproportionately represented in juvenile and criminal proceedings, girls are the fastest-growing segment of the juvenile population and are often in the system for reasons very different from boys. A groundbreaking report released in 2015 unearthed a “sexual abuse to prison pipeline,” revealing that being sexually abused is a “primary predictor” for involvement with the justice system, particularly for girls of color. The report found that 93 percent of Oregon girls and 81 percent of California girls in the juvenile system were sexually or physically abused before they were locked up, and that across the country, nearly 40 percent of girls in the juvenile system had been sexually assaulted prior to incarceration.

Through data and story-collection, the report also revealed that many girls become entangled in the juvenile system because they were victimized — for example, when police arrest girls for running away from an abusive household or charge girls too young to legally consent to sex with “soliciting” adult men.

History also reveals a disturbing double-standard at play that puts these troubled girls at greater risk of being incarcerated. Early legal thinking developed different definitions of delinquency for girls and boys. While boys were considered delinquent when they violated laws, girls were considered delinquent for general “immorality,” which included using profanity and going to saloons.

In direct reflection of that historical discrimination, girls today are still sent to the delinquency system for less-serious offenses than boys. Nearly 40 percent of girls detained in juvenile facilities are there because of status offenses – acts only considered legal violations for persons under 18 – compared with just 25 percent of boys. The most common status offenses are running away and truancy, behaviors that are strong indicators of underlying issues at home or school.

Girls are also more likely than boys to be detained for longer periods and placed in more restrictive environments than they otherwise would be — often due to a lack of beds. In Girls Incarcerated, the girl who has been there the longest, Najwa Pollard, had been eligible for release for months but was stuck in detention because there was no family or community available to take her. Najwa’s story struck a chord with viewers, prompting an outpouring of folks on social media offering to adopt her and donating to fund her education. In response, a former counselor at the facility reminded viewers that  “there are other faceless, nameless kids in your communities.”

For the children in Girls Incarcerated, but also the thousands of children in the system today, the purpose of juvenile justice is supposed to be rehabilitation. Still, we continue to send youth with the most pressing needs to the places they are least likely to receive it – juvenile and adult prisons — and keep them there for far too long. Detention is uniquely harmful to all youths, but there is a significant risk that subjecting abuse victims to a punitive environment will retrigger trauma and compound the harm they have already experienced. Worst of all, one study found that girls who had been detained were five times more likely to die by age 29 than children who had not.

There is no justice in a system that treats girls who have been abused the way our juvenile justice system currently does. Childhood is not a privilege; it’s a developmental stage, and children should not be treated as adults in the eyes of the law. Children who have committed status offenses and technical violations for which adults do not face criminal accountability should not be in detention — and no child should have to go to prison to have access to school and the mental health supports they need. Responses to children’s behavior should be tailored to meet their unique developmental needs and, if anything, the hardship and trauma they may have experienced should be a mitigating factor.

By revealing the names and faces and humanity of the children who live through it every day, Girls Incarcerated brings viewers into this cruel and broken system. And, as each of their stories illustrate, incarcerating children should be a last resort.

Nila Bala (@NilaBala3) is a former assistant public defender and senior criminal justice fellow at the R Street Institute. Stacey Eunnae (@Staceye) is an attorney in Washington, D.C. and associate fellow at the R Street Institute.

Tags Criminal justice Criminology Juvenile justice system Nila Bala Prison

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