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The Childhood, Law & Policy Network (CLPN)

Interview with Alexandra Cox about her co-edited collection, The Palgrave International Handbook of Youth Imprisonment

Our member, Alexandra Cox (University of Essex, UK), talks about her new collection (co-edited with Laura Abrams), The Palgrave International Handbook of Youth Imprisonment(Palgrave Macmillan, 2021).


Q1: What is this edited collection about?

This collection draws together writing on juvenile imprisonment by scholars and advocates from across the globe. It draws empirical work that has been done on imprisonment together with more macro-level analyses of the role that imprisonment plays in young lives.

The collection begins by focusing on children’s rights and human rights in confinement and the socio-legal contexts of youth imprisonment. It then moves onto a focus on the work of sociologists and other social scientists who have studied young people’s experiences of confinement, including the emotional landscape of imprisonment and the gendered nature of imprisonment. The collection then focuses on the experiences of young people leaving custody and the experiences of young people facing long term imprisonment in adult prisons. Finally, the collection concludes with chapters that focus on key questions facing reformers, including and whether youth prisons should be abolished altogether or other avenues for change.

Of note, this is one of very few collections of essays that brings together perspectives on youth imprisonment around the world. We see some common themes in the study of imprisonment: violence, children’s rights, and the valence of care and control in custody. We also see from this volume that solutions to caring for children in conflict with the law are far from simple.

Q2: What made you initiate this edited collection?

The sociology of youth imprisonment is a burgeoning field, and yet there are no contemporary books which bring together this work. We were approached by the editors of the Palgrave Studies in Prisons and Penology book series, who were keen to support a book of this kind as they sought to develop the work of the series and to publish high-quality research on youth imprisonment.

As scholars who also work at the intersections of advocacy, research, and the law, we were not only interested in assembling the work of established and emerging researchers of youth imprisonment, but we also wanted to incorporate the voices of young people who had been incarcerated as well as the perspectives of advocates and legal scholars, which we felt would complement the collective. Thus, in addition to important new scholarship on the sociology of imprisonment, we have included poems written by young people in detention who have worked with an organization called Inside Out Writers, based in California, as well as essays by individuals who have spent time in detention as children, in prison as young adults, and facing the death penalty.

We have also included work by advocates working across the globe who have specifically addressed the issue of juvenile imprisonment, from reform-based to abolitionist perspectives. Our aim in building this collection was to illuminate the key and common themes in youth imprisonment across the globe, but also the points of tension in policies and practices, as well as the discontinuities and challenges in a purely Western-centric view of juvenile imprisonment.

Excerpt from the introductory chapter:

Numerous children are imprisoned across the globe in deplorable conditions, despite international legal conventions which suggest that children should be detained only as a last resort. In 2014, the United Nations commissioned a global study of children deprived of liberty; using a broad range of data, researchers in this study estimated that across the globe, there were 1.5 million children detained in criminal justice-related matters throughout 2018 (Nowak, 2019, 41). This handbook brings together the perspectives of researchers, advocates, and young people themselves on the shape, experiences, and challenges to the imprisonment of young people.

Article 37b of The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), of which 196 countries are signatories, requires that detention should only be used as a last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time (United Nations, 1989). The UNCRC set standards for the treatment of children in care, including protection from violence and degrading punishment. However, there is a substantial gap between policy, international law and practice (Nowak, 2019, 260). Not only are a substantial number of children around the world subjected to lengthy terms of imprisonment, but they are frequently exposed to abuse and violence in custody, poor health and mental health care, and a lack of access to educational, vocational and training options (Nowak, 2019). Systems of confinement globally also reflect intersectional patterns of criminalization by race, ethnicity, immigration status, class, caste, gender and sexuality: impoverished children, particularly boys, face systemic racism in the processes of arrest and confinement across the globe, raising considerable questions about the uses and abuses of confinement for the purposes of social control. Finally, the UNCRC prohibits the incarceration of children with adults, but in a number of nations around the world, children are routinely placed into detention with adults and sentenced to adult terms of imprisonment. As many as 1,000 children across the globe are estimated to be on death row for crimes that they committed when they were children (Nowak, 2019, 292).

The incarceration of young people raises significant questions about the state’s role in the development and care of its youngest citizens, and has particular consequences for children’s ability to thrive, grow and make political, social and economic contributions to the nation state. It also has consequences for the establishment of trust between young citizens and states, and the role of care and control more generally in the lives of citizens. A state’s decision to incarcerate a young person, and the conditions which they subject them to, often reflect a broader set of commitments – to the rule of law, to equity and fairness, and to human rights more generally. Thus, institutions used to imprison young people reflects a state’s broader set of commitments to the dignity and worth of its citizens.

Despite the substantial numbers of children in confinement globally, a number of nations have engaged in substantial reforms toward decarceration. These reforms have resulted in a considerable decrease in the numbers of confined children in several high incarceration nations around the world, including the United States and the United Kingdom (National Juvenile Justice Network, 2018; Youth Justice Board/Ministry of Justice, 2019). As the number of children in detention and residential facilities has declined, some advocates have pushed for non-custodial solutions, such as the use of small group home facilities and foster homes. This has opened the door for discussions about the appropriate shape of care for young people in placements outside of their homes and families, and raises questions about the deprivation of liberty, appropriate oversight, and conditions of confinement for children separated from their families. In the UN Global Study on Children Deprived of Liberty, researchers found that there are 5.4 million children globally in institutions, separated from their families, and at risk of the deprivation of liberty (Nowak, 2019).

Despite the evidence of rampant abuse and violence, institutions that house children in conflict with the law are notoriously difficult to access and study. Indeed, there is often much to hide from the outsider’s lens. Yet it remains critically important to study the contours of imprisonment, not only to understand the effects of imprisonment on young people, but also to contribute to our understanding of proposals for reform, restructuring, and abolition. Fortunately, researchers around the globe have centered their attention on juvenile imprisonment, and there is an emerging research literature, particularly critical qualitative and ethnographic studies in this field that this volume aims to highlight.



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