The number of youth incarcerated in the United States has been halved since 2007. The most recent national data from 2017 shows that more than 43,500 juveniles across the United States were in some sort of confinement environment, according to The sentencing project, a nonprofit organization that strives to minimize imprisonment.
Despite these falling rates, the United States still incarcerates more young people than any other country. In addition, racial disparities persist. In each state, black children are five times more likely to be incarcerated than white children. Native American children are three times more likely than white children, and Latin American children are 42% more likely to be incarcerated than white children.
Studies have shown that 70% of incarcerated children have a diagnosable mental health problem, but at the Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake Juvenile Correctional Facility in Wisconsin, it’s much higher. According to the Wisconsin Department of Corrections, as of July 2021, 93% of youth housed in this juvenile correctional facility have a mental health problem. Among these young people, 25% have a serious illness.
On October 20, WUWM hosted a live virtual chat in collaboration with Well-being and Recall, an American Public Media initiative to foster new conversations about mental health. The discussion featured two panels that focused on the impact of incarceration on the mental health of young people and what is being done to address it both within institutions and upon their return to the community.
Panelists attending the event are: Roy Rogers of the Wisconsin Alliance for Youth Justice; Amanda Smit, Program Coordinator at RETURN project; Sharlen Moore, Executive Director of Urban underground; Dr. Henry Boeh, registered psychologist and certified clinician in dialectical behavior therapy working at the Milwaukee County Secure Juvenile Detention Center; and Clem Richardson, an addiction counselor with Project RETURN.
Rogers was incarcerated in an adult prison at the age of 16, and he recounted his experience in prison as a young adult and struggling with mental health issues.
âIt was traumatic. I was a kid in an adult environment – a pretty violent adult environment. I saw a lot of this violent behavior being a minor, in what they call a double-max prison,â Rogers says. . “We [young adults] were not separated from the rest of the adult population; no special attention was given to us. ”
Councilor Richardson, who was also incarcerated at the age of 16 in the 1980s, says he suffered from depression, anger and dirty living conditions during the peak of the crack epidemic and has just come from ‘a family of 16, which caused him a myriad of problems.
At 13, Richardson started selling marijuana, and at 15, he started selling cocaine. At 21, he was selling crack cocaine.
âMy experience was violent and I was definitely aggressive,â he says. “I didn’t want to be exploited and deal with anxiety, deal with [poor] living conditions – these conditions were really horrible in the 80s. “
Dialectical Behavioral Therapist Dr Boeh says his therapy work with youth in prison aims to help them deal with their emotions more effectively. Over the past year, Boeh has worked with Running rebels design a program to help young people understand their mental health issues.
“We are trying to set up a whole therapy program designed to help young people in detention find new [and] more effective ways of dealing with big emotions [and] overall have more control over the direction of their life, âhe explains.
Moore with Urban Underground says that if Dialectical Behavior Therapy is a good start, communities should be more proactive than reactive.
âWe need to do a lot more. So when we talk about DBT [Dialectical Behavioral Therapy] skills, we should not provide that when young people are incarcerated or when adults arrive in this prison environment, âshe notes. “We should be talking about those kinds of skill sets when kids are in kindergarten, when they’re in elementary school – these are the things that will live with them.”
At the heart of this conversation, Moore says these issues reflect the bigger issues Milwaukee is experiencing. She says young people have suffered the most because they are growing up to be affected adults.
âWhen we talk about systemic structures in place and designed so that people of color in communities are pushed into particular areas that have exacerbated poverty, mental health [concerns], inequitable education systems and [a lack of] health care, âsays Moore.
Richardson says 63% of youth and adults who leave prison return to the system within three years. Many parents unknowingly teach their children poor coping skills, and he says statistics like these prove that many young people lack the coping skills needed to stop the prison cycle.
âYoung people do not know how to act and remain calm, calm and serene. Then, [they] usually return to prison. Not just once, two or three times. I agree with prevention, but we must also have it for young people and adults, ânotes Richardson.
To address this challenge, the panel unanimously agreed that support should be given to family and community relationships. They are all urging the city of Milwaukee to take a break, ask what needs to be done, and analyze where resources should be reallocated. The panelists recognize that it is a lot of work, but they all believe the city can collectively make it happen.
âWe have to find a way to bring the family into the fold,â adds Richardson. âEven though the dad might not be at home, you have a lot of good mothers there, you also have a lot of single fathers raising their children. Due to the dynamics going on in our community, we need everyone on the bridge, even parents to get involved. “
Although these are only the first steps in implementing DBT, Boeh says he has seen a significant change in the participants who have completed the program, noting that it only takes a few months for the participants to complete the program. young people to start using the new coping resources taught to them.
“They [incarcerated youth] you just start demonstrating these new behaviors, and you see it decreases the fights, the restrictions, you see it helps, and you see them kind of feel a sense of mastery – like, ‘Wow, I just stopped that. situation to deteriorate rapidly. ‘”he said.
To find resources that support youth mental health, you can visit the Milwaukee Mental Health Resource Kit. To learn more and hear the full discussion, watch the full Call To Mind Live: Youth Incarceration and Mental Health program below: