Human rights abuses and systemic racism through the criminalization of survival: An ethnographic exploration of juvenile detention in a New England city

Date of Completion

January 2007


Sociology, Criminology and Penology|Sociology, Public and Social Welfare|Sociology, Ethnic and Racial Studies




The following study is an inductive, critical ethnographic investigation of juvenile detention and the disproportionate incarceration of African Americans and Latino/as in a New England city and state (henceforth, "Capital City" and "Disparicut"). In Disparicut, "detention centers" are used to house state wards who are in various stages of the child welfare and juvenile justice system(s). Over approximately two years I conducted fieldwork and interviews (195 informal, 20 formal) in the Central City Detention Center (CCDC) and related state offices. My observations and the narratives of my research partners in and around the CCDC illustrate how the state systematically institutionalizes, incarcerates, and generally disenfranchises African American and Latino/a youth. Overlapping, seemingly benign institutions employ "color blind" policies and practices that systematically place these young populations 'of color' in detention—sometimes indefinitely, often without any criminal charge or conviction, and all (ironically) under the guise of "child protection." The disparate incarceration of African American and Latino/a youth in Disparicut simultaneously manifests several violations of international human rights laws and standards, and the operation and perpetuation of "systemic racism." First, as an analytical and theoretical contribution, I suggest that racial disparities in state juvenile detention—and to some extent systemic racism more broadly—arise and perpetuate through the systematic "criminalization of survival" of marginalized African American and Latino/a youth. As a second theoretical contribution in the area of human rights, I suggest that state wards (unaccompanied youth) should be allowed, and are capable of speaking on behalf of their own "best interests" as the agents and claimants of inalienable (human) rights. Finally, I argue for the abolition of youth incarceration, given: (1) the damning narratives of incarcerated youth and youth advocates, (2) a long history of abuse and racism throughout the US carceral regime, (3) the massive/multiple public costs of imprisonment, and (4) the failure of youth imprisonment to reduce crime, reduce recidivism, or somehow "rehabilitate" targeted youth.^