“When you hold a youth accountable in the same manner and fashion in which you hold an adult, it's just not right and it's not fair,” says LaShon Beamon of the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services.
Michael Kemp knows what it’s like to be a kid locked up in an adult prison.
“You never know what the adults might do to you, and you're just thinking man what's going to happen to me,” says Kemp.
He was locked up for the first time when he was 12-years-old at Oak Hill Juvenile Correctional Facility outside of Washington, D.C.
“Oak Hill it wasn't designed to rehabilitate you, it was designed for punishment. You know having barbed wires around the gate and it's just preparing you for more criminal-type lifestyle,” he says.
Like most kids that serve time as a juvenile in the U.S., he got into trouble again. At 17 he was charged with armed robbery as an adult. He says for a kid, being in an adult prison is a constant struggle to survive.
“They know how it is when you come off the bus and know that you're far away from home, so they pull you in but in reality they're trying to get a favor out of you, a sexual act, and then you get victimized or raped and then you become someone's…person,” he says.
He was spared from sexual abuse, but many kids aren’t so lucky.
In fact, statistics out of the Bureau of Justice show one-in-five victims of sexual violence in jails and prisons are under the age of 18. Youths in adult facilities are 36 times more likely to commit suicide than those in the juvenile system.On any given day in America 10,000 children are held in adult jails and prisons.Most of them have never been convicted of a crime.
Critics slam the practice of putting kids in adult jails as cruel and unusual punishment.
“They are less capable of understanding the consequences of their behavior, their development is incomplete,” says Bart Lubow of the Annie Casey Foundation.
The Supreme Court struck down the death penalty for juveniles in 2005. But today, the United States is the only country that sentences kids to life without parole.
“It was viewed as a substitute to the ultimate penalty,” says Lubow.
There are now 2,500 inmates that were sentenced to die in jail as children.
Lubow says, “This is a peculiarly American phenomenon where we tend to believe, the harsher the penalties, the greater the public safety pay-off.”
He says kids should instead be rehabilitated. That’s the focus at Washington DC’s newly-opened New Beginnings.
Walking into a classroom at New Beginnings is much different than walking into a classroom at other juvenile detention facilities. It's a system based on rewards, rather than punishment. And experts say the system is muc hmore effective at rehabilitating youth to be productive members of society.
It’s one of the rare places where kids are given a second chance. But in most prisons throughout the country remain America’s forgotten children… hope for the future gone at an early age.