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Jessica D. Turral, Marianna E. Carlucci, Ph.D., Adanna Johnson-Evans, Ph.D., Rachel L. Grover, Ph.D.

Behind Bars, Hearing a Child’s Cry: Experiences of Juveniles Incarcerated as Adults

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Each year in the United States, approximately 200,000 youth are charged as adults in the criminal justice system, with an average of 10,000 youth being housed in an adult facility on a daily basis (Griffin, Addie, Adams & Firestine, 2011; Minton, 2011). Due to racial disparities, African-American youth make up 62% of the youth prosecuted despite only accounting for 17% of the overall youth population (Arya & Augarten, 2008). Furthermore, African-American youth are 9 times more likely than Caucasian youth to receive an adult sentence for similar crimes (Arya & Augarten, 2008; Minton, 2011). There have been very few studies that have investigated the experiences (social, emotional, racial, etc.) of African American youth incarcerated in adult prisons.

Research has shown that 82% of juveniles housed in adult facilities will reoffend within 3 years of their release from incarceration, currently there is no research on what percentage of those juveniles are African American (Langan & Levin, 2002). Previous literature has illuminated that juveniles incarcerated in adult prisons view their experience as not rehabilitative. Rather, the perceived lack of resources and training ground for criminal activity, increases their vulnerability to recidivism (Woolard et al., 2005). Additional research has associated juvenile’s negative perceptions of their institutional environment (e.g., safety, services available) to their outcomes upon release, including increased future criminal activity (Schubert et al., 2012).  

Further research has shown that a common experience among juveniles leaving adult facilities is stunted psychosocial maturity development compared to their peers both not involved in the correctional system and those involved in the juvenile justice system (Dmitrieva et al., 2012). Taken together, these studies suggest that a relationship may exist between what juvenile’s experience in prison, their future criminal behavior and identity development. The dearth of data on juveniles is even greater when focusing upon African American juveniles housed in adult prisons. Earlier research has associated ethnic development as most predictive of overall development and most important to the self-definition of African-American adolescent, with identity achieved status being linked to a reduction in risk behaviors (.ie criminal behaviors) (Brittian, 2012; Helms, 1990). However, the researcher is not aware of any research studies that have investigated the associations between racial identity development, criminal behavior and an individual’s experience in prison, and thus is likely an area that needs to be further explored.

It is clear that youth housed with adults have negative outcomes both during incarceration (e.g., stunted development) and after incarceration (e.g., recidivism rates). However, further research is needed to explore the developmental trajectories of African American males who have been housed in adult facilities as juveniles and how stunted development may be linked to future offending.

The goal of this present study is to describe the experiences and identity development of African-American young adults who were incarcerated in adult prisons while juveniles, in order to investigate the prison ability to provide African American males with developmentally appropriate services that would lead to the development of positive self-identities and lower recidivism rates.

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