As Young Inmates Adjust,
So Do Prisons and Jails to Their Special Needs


INDIAN SPRINGS, Nev. - Shaun Miller was 15 in 1998 when he was arrested for robbing a convenience store in Pahrump, Nev., with three older teenagers. The oldest member of the group, who was 19, planned the crime and used a gun. Shaun, who was unarmed, took the money from the cash register.

Like dozens of other states in the 1990's, Nevada was part of a movement to crack down on juvenile crime by making it easier to punish teenagers as adults. So Mr. Miller was sentenced to 6 to 15 years in prison and placed among inmates 10 and 20 years older at the Northern Nevada Correctional Center in Carson City.

"When I first got on the bus, I was scared," Mr. Miller said in an interview. "I thought I was going to be killed or raped. You've got to watch and adapt. You've got to have an image that no one can run over you."

Shaun Miller recently became part of another trend, one that is transforming prisons nationwide. In response to the tens of thousands of offenders under 18 who have come under their supervision in the last decade, adult jails and prisons have quietly taken steps to cope with the special needs and dangers of adolescents in an adult correctional population. Last November, he was transferred to a new unit at the Southern Desert Correctional Center in Indian Springs, one that segregates youthful offenders from adults.

"Who wants to put a 14- 15- or 16- year-old into an adult population?" asked Nevada's director of corrections, Jackie Crawford, who established the juvenile offender unit here. "It's not good for the juvenile or for the population."

Corrections officials not just in Nevada but also in Colorado, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, Texas, Washington and other states have created special provisions for adolescents. What these prisons are mostly doing is segregating youthful inmates; some prisons are even changing menus and adding meals to meet the nutritional needs of teenagers.

Because they are so new, and because they vary so much by state, it is difficult to measure the extent of the changes and how they are affecting the youthful offenders.

These officials are following recommendations made two years ago by the American Correctional Association, the organization that represents prison staffs. The recommendations are part of a resolution that favors strict limits on the transfer of juveniles to adult court and faults lawmakers for not doing enough to prepare adult prisons for an influx of young offenders.

At the core of their response is the realization that teenagers in adult prisons are vulnerable to sexual exploitation and physical assault and that being around older inmates can turn youthful offenders into hardened criminals. According to studies, teenagers in adult prisons and jails have higher rates of return than their counterparts in juvenile centers. At the same time, corrections officials say that some young prisoners endanger the older inmates and are difficult to control.

"People forget that even though they've done some heinous, violent crimes, they are still adolescents," said Barry Glick, a former New York State prison official who was chairman of the association's task force on youthful offenders, which drafted the recommendations. "If you are exposing them to models who are criminals, what are they learning? They're streetwise kids who are learning to be better criminals."

Despite these changes to cope with teenagers in adult prisons, experts in criminal justice are pessimistic. Young offenders who might once have stayed in the juvenile system, where the emphasis is on treatment and education, are instead in institutions that have gotten more violent and more fiscally restrained, and where the emphasis is on punishment, not rehabilitation.

In addition, unlike their counterparts in juvenile centers, those who go to adult prisons acquire felony conviction records.

"Even with these fixes to adult corrections, adolescents will still spend years in tough, violent institutions where the prison culture will shape their views of themselves and their futures," said Jeffrey Fagan, a professor of law and public health at Columbia University, who is a member of a MacArthur Foundation research team on adolescence and juvenile justice. "They still will return home with the stigma of a felony conviction record that will block their way into the workplace, making it very difficult for them to stay out of prison."

The move to punish youthful offenders as adults came in response to a steep rise in the juvenile murder rate in the late 1980's and early 1990's. Teenage prisoners were increasingly seen to be as morally culpable and responsible as adults. Forty-five states passed or amended legislation to send not only violent young offenders, but also teenagers convicted of burglary and drug offenses, into the adult system.

As a result, the number of youths admitted to adult prisons doubled in little more than a decade, to 7,000 in 1998 from 3,400 in 1985, according to the most recent figures available from the United States Justice Department. There were 9,100 offenders under 18 in adult jails in 1997, the most recent year for which statistics are available. Of the juveniles incarcerated on any given day, one in 10 are in adult jails or prisons. (The juvenile crime rate has dropped sharply in the last few years.)

For many prison officials, the influx of adolescents was troubling.

"The kids were coming to us, and we were jumping up and down like little Johnny in the classroom, waving our hands, saying, `We need help,' " said Richard L. Stalder, who heads the Louisiana Public Safety and Corrections Department. "Forget about whether we should do this, or we shouldn't. Help us. Give us direction."

With little money, the response within prisons is often jury-rigged at best. While teenage inmates may occupy separate wings, they often encounter adult prisoners at meals, in the library and in recreation periods.

Pennsylvania has gone further than most other states in how it handles young offenders sentenced as adults. In January the state opened the State Correctional Institution at Pine Grove, a $71 million, 500-bed prison exclusively for teenagers. The prison emphasizes treatment and education.

In Florida, the Legislature passed a measure in May mandating that offenders under 18 in adult prisons be housed in separate units.

In Texas, teenage inmates are kept in a separate unit of the adult prison in Brazoria, spending about half their time in school and the other in treatment and counseling.

"They may be sentenced as adults but they're still adolescents," said Diana Coates, who directs the Texas Department of Criminal Justice program for youthful offenders sentenced as adults.

Ms. Coates and other corrections officials say teenage inmates present particular challenges. They talk a lot. They also keep outgrowing their shoes.

Not surprisingly, food is a powerful motivator. At Pine Grove prison, teenage inmates are given a fourth meal in the evenings: a sandwich and a piece of fruit during the week; pizza, cheeseburgers or a hot sandwich on weekends.

The Pine Grove warden, Barry Johnson, said the fourth meal was prompted by a survey the National Institute of Corrections conducted last year asking juvenile offenders what they considered the most important prison incentive.

"Everybody thought they would say parole or prerelease," Mr. Johnson said. "They said pizza."

He added: "It shows that they are adolescents. They live very much for the minute - which makes them very dangerous inmates. They're not like adult inmates, who will listen to orders of a correctional officer."

It is for this reason, Mr. Johnson said, that juvenile offenders sometimes pose a threat to adult inmates.

"We found that the adults are as much afraid of the kids as the kids are of the adults," he said. "The kids can gain a tremendous reputation if they can take out an adult inmate."

In Nevada, 45 young inmates occupy a separate building at the state prison, the Southern Desert Correctional Center, here in Indian Springs, 55 miles north of Las Vegas. The younger inmates, ages 16 to 21, have mostly been convicted of robbery and drug-related offenses. Nevada has about 320 inmates 18 and under in adult prisons, about double the number of a decade or so ago.

"Here in the program, they want to know about you, your family, what's your view of things," said Marcus Dixon, 18, who is serving 40 years to life for using his cousin's gun to kill a 16-year-old boy four years ago.

On the yard, Mr. Dixon said, referring to the adult side of the prison, "you're just another prisoner."

After three years of learning to survive among much older inmates in adult jail and prison, Mr. Dixon was guarded when he arrived here in November. "They talk about `Dixon, we can help you,' " he said. "I said, `You can't help me.' "

He smiled and added, "Then I just decided to let them help me."

Mr. Dixon meets regularly with the unit's caseworker, Bill Velez, and with the prison psychologist. "I learned that I have choices," he said.

He was talking in the office of Tony L. Carlysle, who runs the unit and puts the inmates through a rigorous physical training program.

Mr. Carlysle said Mr. Dixon had turned into a model inmate.

"He's got asthma, and he's out there at 5:30 in the morning with his inhaler doing push-ups," he said. "If all the inmates were like him, I'd come to work seven days a week."

Steve Statler, the senior correctional officer on the juvenile unit, said: "I've been waiting 11 years for something like this. You wouldn't believe the change in attitude when they come here. "

Marcus Dixon shares a cell with Shaun Miller. While he feels safer on the juvenile unit than with the adults, Mr. Miller said, being here has not changed his view of his future. When he leaves prison, in 3 to 12 years, he will be a ninth-grade dropout with a high school equivalency degree and a felony record.

"What am I going to do?" he asked. "I've never had no job. I don't have no job skills."

With Nevada's prisons on a tight budget, vocational training for inmates has been limited. But Ms. Crawford, the corrections director, has arranged for Shaun Miller and the other youthful inmates here to begin learning how to rebuild computers in the fall.

Mr. Miller, who was reared by his mother and his grandparents in Pahrump, had one juvenile arrest, for stealing a car from a school parking lot with three other teenagers, and was on probation when he was charged with for robbery. Judge John P. Davis of District Court, acting on the recommendation of the prosecutor, ruled that Mr. Miller should be charged as an adult. Judge Davis said that because of the seriousness of the crime, he had to sentence Mr. Miller to the maximum time in adult prison.

"You just can't erase the things that had to be done," the judge said.

For his part, Mr. Miller worries about the day when he will return to the adult side of the prison.

"It's just a bunch of criminals inside a barbed-wire fence," he said. "The only thing you do is walk around and listen to everyone tell their criminal stories."

Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company