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Museum exhibit and panel "Lost Lives: Youth Behind Bars"

Dr. Cavanagh, the ADJust lab, Dr. Francisco Villarruel, Dr. Ruben Martinez, Marcy Mistrett, the Campaign for Youth Justice, the MSU Youth Equity Project, and MSU Broad Museum teamed up for a hybrid museum exhibit, research project, and discussion panel event last night.


Our research team read over 150 letters written by individuals who were incarcerated as youth in adult facilities, mostly for life or near-life sentences. Some of the incredibly powerful letters are on display at the MSU Broad Museum as part of a larger series examining incarceration and art. through December 12, 2021. Our goal was to find themes that emerged across the letters, to better understand the common experiences of youth incarcerated in adult facilities. Through a synergistic, collaborative, and iterative process, we identified six themes. While not every letter reflects all of the themes, these are six topics that we found were core to youths’ experiences while incarcerated, in their own words.


1. “This was a child”: Youth are developmentally different, and therefore fundamentally less culpable, than adults.


2. “Uninformed & Unrepresented”: Youth who are prosecuted in adult court are often ignorant of their legal rights, have inappropriate legal representation, or are pressured into plea deals.


3. “More Harm Than Good”: Violent, overcrowded, and isolating prison conditions are antithetical to rehabilitation


4. “In the Wolves’ Crosshairs”: Youth who are detained in adult jails and prisons are acutely vulnerable to violence and abuse while incarcerated


5. “A Prescription for Tragedy”: Youth who commit serious crimes are often victims or bystanders of violence and/or were raised in dysfunctional environments.


6. “What I Want to Live For”: People who have been incarcerated for crimes they committed as juveniles are capable of transformation and aspire to contribute to society.

After identifying the themes, we contextualized each theme in both research and policy. Then, at a special panel event hosted by the MSU Broad Museum entitled "Lost Lives: Youth Behind Bars," we discussed the findings from our research, as well as how they connect with contemporary juvenile justice literature, and policy/legislative reform efforts in Michigan and across the US.


A special thanks to student researchers Casey Orr, Maddie Allen, and Marcia Jordan (pictured, right) for presenting at the event!




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Dr. Cavanagh was tenured and promoted to the role of Associate Professor at MSU. Congratulations, Dr. Cavanagh!