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Compassionate Confinement

A Year in the Life of Unit C

Laura S. Abrams and Ben Anderson-Nathe

Publication Year: 2013

To date, knowledge of the everyday world of the juvenile correction institution has been extremely sparse. Compassionate Confinement brings to light the challenges and complexities inherent in the U.S. system of juvenile corrections. Building on over a year of field work at a boys’ residential facility, Laura S. Abrams and Ben Anderson-Nathe provide a context for contemporary institutions and highlight some of the system’s most troubling tensions.

            This ethnographic text utilizes narratives, observations, and case examples to illustrate the strain between treatment and correctional paradigms and the mixed messages regarding gender identity and masculinity that the youths are expected to navigate. Within this context, the authors use the boys’ stories to show various and unexpected pathways toward behavior change. While some residents clearly seized opportunities for self-transformation, others manipulated their way toward release, and faced substantial challenges when they returned home.

            Compassionate Confinement concludes with recommendations for rehabilitating this notoriously troubled system in light of the experiences of its most vulnerable stakeholders.

Published by: Rutgers University Press

Series: Critical Issues in Crime and Society

Title Series Information

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Title Page

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Copyright Page

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pp. vii

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pp. ix-x

Unless we live in the end-time of ultimate enlightenment, the coveted truths we now hold most self-evident, the products of our best science, will not only seem outdated and wrong in a few decades, but laughable. Of the candidates for...

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pp. xi

We are grateful to many extraordinary individuals who offered their insights into this project in many stages. We thank our former colleagues from the University of Minnesota, Jane Gilgun and Kyoungho Kim, for their support in the project’s...

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pp. 1-7

Juvenile incarceration has been legally institutionalized for over a hundred years. Yet still today, the public is mired in debate about the use of secure confinement to solve the problem of youth crime. In spite of broad consensus that the system is neither effectively helping youth nor protecting society from future...

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Chapter 1. History and Current Tensions in Juvenile Corrections

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pp. 8-31

Wildwood House, the facility where we conducted our fieldwork, did not exist in a vacuum. Nor do we believe it was unique in composition, challenges, or successes. By all accounts, this institution, like other juvenile correctional facilities across the United States, grappled with the push and pull of competing...

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Chapter 2. The Setting

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pp. 32-48

Wildwood House is a contemporary juvenile correctional facility for young men located just a few miles from the downtown core of a major urban center. Founded in the early 1900s as a community response to truant and incorrigible youth, the facility has a longstanding history in its community. Over the course of the twentieth...

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Chapter 3. Mixed Messages: "Therapy Speak in a Correctional Milieu"

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pp. 49-68

Twenty boys milled about the common room of Unit C, the commotion of their interactions filling the room with active and comfortable background noise. A group of Hmong youth sat together at one table, engaged in a competitive card game of Spades, while some of their peers—predominantly white youth...

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Chapter 4. "Take It Like a Man": Masculinities, Treatment, and Crime

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pp. 69-89

This scenario contains numerous layers of complexity regarding institutional context and messages about power, the importance of winning and losing, and the value of competition. On the one hand, Mr. Connelly’s attempt to diffuse the conflict on...

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Chapter 5. "Jumping Through Hoops": Identity, Self-Preservation, and Change

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pp. 90-110

Can a treatment-based correctional program significantly shift a young man’s identity if he doesn’t want his identity shifted? Does the tendency to fake it trump any meaningful changes that a resident might make? Ms. Breuer once said about the residents that “when they make changes, even small little changes, it is rewarding...

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Chapter 6. On the Outs

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pp. 111-128

The success of any juvenile correctional program, whether punitive or rehabilitative in its orientation, is typically measured by what happens to the youth when they return to society. Will they become law-abiding citizens or will they continue to commit crimes? Irrespective of one’s political position on how to best address...

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Chapter 7. Rehabilitating Rehabilitation: What We Learned From Unit C

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pp. 129-138

We began this book by raising critical questions about juvenile incarceration in American society, noting the major paradigm shifts and fractured opinions surrounding the appropriate goals and orientation of this system. If juvenile corrections has indeed—as many critics have charged—failed to fulfill...

Appendix. Behind the Scenes: Reflections on Field Research in Action

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pp. 139-150


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pp. 151-160


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pp. 161-170

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About the Author

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pp. 171

Laura. S. Abrams, associate professor of social welfare at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, has dedicated her research to understanding identity formation and transitions among incarcerated youth. She has authored over forty schola...

Available titles in the Critical Issuesin Crime and Society series:

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pp. 173

E-ISBN-13: 9780813554143
E-ISBN-10: 0813554144
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813554129
Print-ISBN-10: 0813554136

Page Count: 188
Publication Year: 2013

Series Title: Critical Issues in Crime and Society

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Juvenile corrections -- United States.
  • Juvenile detention homes -- United States -- Case studies.
  • Juvenile delinquents -- Rehabilitiation -- United States.
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