Al Jazeera America Looks at Juvenile Justice and its ‘Clientele’

By Mark Walsh — April 10, 2015 2 min read
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There are some 60,000 people under the age of 21 locked up in the United States, Soledad O’Brien tells us in her engrossing hour-long Al Jazeera America documentary on juvenile justice. It’s too bad they can’t all come face to face with O’Brien for a few days, as several young men at a New Mexico juvenile institution do in this special.

O’Brien, who has always come across as a hip, youngish TV news correspondent, offers a maternal dose of empathy—and disappointment—to the youths she focuses on in the special, and they seem to genuinely respond to her.

In “Kids Behind Bars: A Soledad O’Brien Special,” which airs Sunday at 10 p.m. Eastern/7 p.m. Pacific, the former CNN anchor visits the J. Paul Taylor Center in Las Cruces, N.M. It is a state-run facility that is experimenting with some novel approaches to juvenile justice as a result of a legal settlement with the American Civil Liberties Union.

This facility is home to 48 young men. We meet one as young as 15 and one as old as 19. O’Brien briefly takes the administrators to task for euphemistically referring to the young men incarcerated there as “clients,” as if the teens are dropping in to an after-school social service agency.

Keidrik, a 15-year-old who is very much locked up at the center for what he describes as assault on a police officer, offers his view on the matter. “Some people don’t see this as a prison, but it really is,” he says. “It’s a juvenile prison.”

Nevertheless, the facility does seem to be making some progressive strides. In response to the ACLU suit that charged that New Mexico’s juvenile facilities were locking youths in solitary confinement, physically abusing them, and distorting information about violence, the Taylor Center is operating under a new approach called “Cambiar.”

The program includes guards who serve as counselors, special mentoring, and more than six hours of schooling per day. We see some of the young men at the school wing of the facility, called the Aztec Academy (which sounds like it could be a charter school).

O’Brien spends a good bit of the special with Keith, who has had drug and anger issues and is serving a two-year term. He is celebrating his 17th birthday when the Al Jazeera America crew visits. Eventually, he gets to spend some time with his family in a visitor’s center.

At other times, both Kendrick and Keith are involved in fights with others that we see snippets of from the center’s security video. Under Cambiar, though, the boys cannot even be put in cell by themselves for a short cooling-off period. A guard or counselor must be with them to try to figure out the origin of the fight.

Keidrick, we are told by the administrator, has not yet bought into life at the center, and he is at risk of extending his stay because of bad behavior.

Keith faces an extension, too, but he is trying to shape up as he nears the end of his term.

O’Brien sits down with both of these young men (and a few others, too). Her genuine connections with them may just help steer them toward the right path.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.