Recently I visited a youth detention center in South Carolina. As I entered the facility, I saw a line of boys in jumpsuits march past with their arms behind their backs. The guard explained to me that they make the boys march to "help teach them discipline and structure."
Although I have visited numerous youth jails and prisons over the last 20 years, I am still amazed at how people who work in youth detention centers delude themselves. Young people, many who have experienced unspeakable trauma, come into these facilities in handcuffs and leg irons, are strip searched, and are put in cinder block cells – where sometimes they are physically restrained or locked in isolation for days as punishment – and somehow they are going to come out OK because they are trained to march in prison.
So it's not surprising that in a report released and presented this week to the U.N. Human Rights Council, Juan Mendez, the U.N.'s special rapporteur on torture, sharply criticized the U.S. model of youth detention where children are at "heightened risk of violence, abuse, and acts of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment." Even short periods of detention undermine a child's psychological and physical wellbeing. The report points out that children's healthy development requires developing emotional connections to caring adults, a requirement that most institutions consistently fail to meet.