6 Stories on Teenagers in Prison

6 Stories on Teenagers in Prison

On any given day, there are nearly 60,000 incarcerated teens in U.S. prisons and juvenile detention centers.

The problem begins with what advocates call the school-to-prison pipeline, or policies and procedures that drive students from the classroom to the criminal legal system.

Today, 3.3 million students are suspended or expelled every year, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. That’s double the expulsion rate of the 1970s, when schools first began mandating zero-tolerance policies and punishments. Students who are expelled or otherwise encouraged to drop out of school are 72% more likely to be incarcerated later in life, according to the American Bar Association.

A 2019 report by The Sentencing Project found that approximately 12,000 people in the U.S. are serving life sentences for a crime they committed before they were 18. The same study found that extensive sentences have dire psychological consequences for teenagers, hindering social, academic and emotional development.

Today there are fewer incarcerated youth than at any point in recent history. The Sentencing Project found that there was a 77% decline in youth incarceration between 2000 and 2020. The organization notes that most juvenile offenses are low-level and nonviolent, and attributes the sharp decline to the erosion of tough-on-crime policies and promotion of resources for U.S. youth. 

But significant disparities remain. A disproportionate number of those being arrested are students of color, particularly Black and brown children, students with disabilities, students who identify as LGBTQ+ and students from under-resourced families. Advocacy groups are encouraging lawmakers to implement policies that address disparities in youth justice and prioritize resources over detention. 

PJP is sharing a collection of six stories to help readers better understand the issue of youth incarceration. 


Entrance to a juvenile detention center

While My Friends Graduated High School, I Sat Behind Barsby Christopher Dankovich: “I spent my first years in prison learning to survive, without a future I could see.”

The Supreme Court ruled that life without parole for juvenile offenders is unconstitutional.

Adults Given Life Sentences as Teens Get Chance at Freedom” (Part 1) by Caddell Kivett: “‘Children are different [even] when their behavior mirrors adult behavior… Their ability to evaluate is different. So, as a society, we must have a different rubric.’” 

Young person's hand on chain link, concept of juvenile justice system

At 16, He Thought He’d Be in Prison for Life” (Part 2) by Caddell Kivett: “Now out of prison, Willis finds a life with freedom daunting.”

Haircut Leads to Trip Down Memory Laneby Jessie Milo: “I reveled in the image of her performing such a mundane and normal task. It felt symbolic of the beauty of normalcy, the beauty of freedom and life.”

A gavel sits on a marble surface and casts a shadow

The US Prison System Relies on Extremely Long Sentencesby Shaquille Davis: “There have been too many kids and teenagers given 15 years-to-life or more, and who don’t make it home until after serving more than 50 years.” 

Menard Correctional Center in Illinois

Sending Teenagers to Prison Has Severe Consequencesby Robert Schultz: “We are being kept in prisons for decades or a lifetime — well after we have grown into an adult and become a completely different person from the one who arrived at prison. It seems like folks on the outside have forgotten about us.”


This article first appeared on Prison Journalism Project and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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