Social Welfare associate professor Laura Abrams spoke on Thursday evening about her recently released book, Compassionate Confinement: A Year in the Life of Unit C. The book, Abrams' first, explores the complexities inherent in the United States system of juvenile corrections.
After spending a year doing field work with co-author Ben Anderson-Nathe, Abrams spoke at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs about her research and the book's impact. Abrams' book is available for purchase .
She discusses the book, the lessons she learned, and how she originally got involved in this topic.
Question: What were some of the 'lessons learned' from the boys and staff of Unit C?
Answer: This book, which is a culmination of 10 years of thinking about this setting, situates the stories of young men, residential staff, and the institution itself in the larger context of political debates about the value of juvenile corrections in changing the course of young men’s lives. On the one hand, conservative critics often argue that the system is too “soft” on juveniles, thus contributing to high recidivism rates. On the other hand, youth advocates have suggested that the system has become too “adult like, and that we need to forge a model of juvenile corrections that is more nurturing and therapeutic.
Our book argues that neither position is correct. Rather, the way that (involuntary) treatment is delivered in the context of a punitive correctional facility, even with the best of intentions, has some paradoxical outcomes. A prime example of this paradox youth who believe in themselves as the best “manipulator” feel that they get better at their manipulation skills while they are in the facility. Yet this does not mean that we suggest these facilities can’t be helpful. We (my co-author, Ben Anderson-Nathe and I) find that some of the treatment practices were quite helpful for some of the youth — mostly when the young person is ready to change, and when youth are allowed to “open up” to the staff without fear of reprisal — in sum, when truly therapeutic exchanges are allowed to occur. We do not believe that the correctional staff should double as lay “therapists” and this practice actually can have a harmful effect on the youth, and makes the staff confused about their roles and boundaries as well.
Q: How do you hope your book will help shape the future of correctional facilities?
A: I would like people to see that the answers to these problems are as simple as they might appear. There is no panacea to fixing a very damaged system, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. I hope that people listen to the voices of the youth and the staff of Unit C to see how the full picture. The youth who are confined in these facilities have often been failed by many other systems set up to help- child welfare, schools, and others. They are coming to corrections not seeking an answer. They are often just biding their time. It takes a special type of worker, one can really engage with the youth, to inspire a desire to use their time productively. It is also important to consider the larger context of corrections. Probation, direct line workers are offered very little training to do the work they are doing, and are also low on the hierarchy in terms of prestige. They want to make a difference often in the lives of youth, and that is why they take the job. The system needs to offer them greater tools to work with. I hope that the public will use this information to fund and create better programs.
Q: What, in your experience, has taught you the most about these facilities?
A: Being an ethnographic observer in the facility taught me so much. I was lucky to be “let in” to This facility and several others to follow. By observing the day to day routines, and getting to know the staff and the youth, I came to really appreciate and understand the culture of juvenile corrections in a way that I couldn’t have done with the extensive exposure to the institution. I have vivid memories of all of the people that I encountered in Unit C, and I won’t ever forget these experiences.
Q: What was the initial interest of yours in tackling this topic and writing this book?
A: When I took my first post-college position working in a residential home for delinquent young women, I began to question the value of institutions try to correct youth’s behaviors through involuntary treatment. I did not focus on residential treatment in graduate school, and instead looked more into schools and alternative schools as they formed the context in which young people develop and forge their identities. Then when I was an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota, I stumbled upon the opportunity to study a residential correctional facility for young men. My practice experience and scholarship seemed to come full circle at that point as I spent the next few years doing research in the “Unit C” as well as several other correctional settings to follow. I see this work as an opportunity to study so many interrelated issues. If we don’t help these young people, they are very likely to stay involved in crime as young adults, when the stakes are much higher.
About the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs
Founded in 1994 and dedicated in 2011, the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs  is a leading institution for research and scholarship in the areas of public policy, social welfare and urban planning. Based in the global metropolis of Los Angeles, UCLA Luskin develops creative solutions and innovative leaders that confront challenges in immigration, drug policy, prison reform, transportation, the environment, and other areas vital to the continued health and well-being of our global society.