Dr. Cavanagh's latest article, Understanding the lived experiences of youth incarcerated in adult facilities through their letters: A content analysis, is out now in Punishment & Society.
In collaboration with the Campaign for Youth Justice (now The Sentencing Project), we coded 250+ letters written by folks incarcerated in adult facilities for crimes they committed as children. We identified 6 themes from the experiences they shared.
Theme 1: youth who commit crimes are fundamentally less culpable than adults
Theme 2: youth who are prosecuted in adult court are often ignorant of their legal rights, have inappropriate legal representation, and/or are pressured into plea deals
Theme 3: violent, overcrowded, isolating prison conditions are antithetical to rehabilitation
Theme 4: youth who are detained in adult facilities are acutely vulnerable to violence and abuse while incarcerated Theme 5: serious juvenile crime is often a product of dysfunctional environments
Theme 6: people incarcerated for crimes committed as youth are capable of transformation and aspire to contribute to society in a positive way
The pains of imprisonment experienced by youth in adult facilities have unique implications for healthy adolescent development. We suggest significant reform, including early intervention, raising the age of majority, increasing rehab services, and eliminating youth transfer.
This project began as an exhibit at the MSU Broad Art Museum in 2021. Our team included policy advocates and academics from the undergraduate to the emeritus professor level. We were all deeply moved and grateful to the letter writers for sharing their lives with us.
Please read the article to hear these brave letter writers' lived experiences in their own words.