edited.Grayscale_Trapped in a Vice_Tori Zieminski_1By Erica Quinones

Elm Staff Writer

The Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience hosted Dr. Alexandra Cox, who explored how the juvenile incarceration system serves as a vice.

Cox, author of “Trapped in a Vice: The Consequences of Confinement for Young People,” is a lecturer at the University of Essex. According to her university profile, she worked for the American Civil Liberties Union’s Drug Reform project and as a public defender in Harlem.

Her work with adolescents in Harlem helped inspire the research, which became the topic of both her book and her Sept. 27 talk. She discussed her findings that span almost a decade of work with 39 children in three New York detention centers.

Adam Goodheart, the director of the Starr Center, introduced her as a “suburb researcher” and an “eloquent advocate for some of our nation’s most vulnerable citizens.”

Cox began her talk by detailing the history of juvenile detention centers, discussing the history of reform schools.

“I’m interested in the history of the system and how that history can help us think about the modern-day system,” Cox said.

She spoke on the remnants of facilities and punitive ideas, like prisons as  “schools of crime” and how juvenile facilities attempt to discourage crime through constant surveillance and limited juvenile interaction. These ideas stemmed from paternalism, incarceration or treatment, care versus control, repressive welfarism, and the role of reform.

Cox delved into each idea along with the contradicting nature of juvenile detention centers. She discussed how they exist to rehabilitate children but treat them like criminals.

“These are systems in which young people are punished for their actions when many of those actions are shaped by conditions that they have very little capacity to change,” Cox said.

She also discussed how the adolescents they cared for were disadvantaged by the felony conviction. Some young people found themselves homeless after being denied public housing due to their felony. Others were placed into unhealthy environments. According to Cox, this fact helps contribute to the 89 percent of male juveniles who return to prison by the age of 21.

“These socio-structural barriers were incredibly important to think about in the context of young people we expect to change … even if they’ve made remarkable progress in the program, there are still all these barriers that exist to their success on the way out,” Cox said.

According to Cox, there is a need for pause in reforms, which often move so quickly that there is no real progress.

“Think about the broader vision of what’s possible in terms of the needs and demands of people in the system,” Cox said.

After the talk, Assistant Professor of Sociology and Black Studies Dr. Rachel Durso reflected on Cox’s presentation.

“I like that what she talks about is grounded in the history of previous movements … because, ultimately a lot of the motivation behind the system was a good thing…a lot of these things were meant to promote the growth and rehabilitation of children, but what she really greatly points out is that we now have these contradicting roles in which it’s for rehabilitation but the security is what you’d find in an adult prison,” Durso said.


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