The public’s perception of crime is often significantly out of alignment with the reality. This is caused, in part, by frequently sensationalist, decontextualized media coverage. Media Frame seeks to critique journalism on issues of policing and prisons, challenge the standard media formulas for crime coverage, and push media to radically rethink how they inform the public on matters of public safety.
Last week, NPR affiliate WESA Pittsburgh aired a report that involved the legally and morally fraught subject of children held in adult jail. The focus of the piece, however, wasn’t on the documented harms of this practice, but instead, on the supposedly healthy and constructive environment one jail high school provides wayward youths.
The segment, which was on NPR’s national broadcast “All Things Considered,” profiled a “full high school” at Allegheny County Jail in Pittsburgh. Pennsylvania law, as the story notes, requires state prison officials to educate incarcerated children “consistent with state standards,” and the state-run Allegheny Intermediate Unit, reporter An-Li Herring said, is doing so to positive effect. The report featured testimonies from incarcerated children who spoke highly of the education program—understandable, since it is, by their own account, the only time they don’t feel dehumanized.
But nowhere in the report was any broader context or criticism of jailing children in adult facilities. Nor did the segment mention that Allegheny County Jail, in recent years, has been the subject of numerous accusations of mismanagement and civil rights violations. Absent any skepticism of the broader practice of incarcerating children with adults, and of the jail, the listener is left with a misleading and incomplete impression of what it’s like to be a minor incarcerated with adults.
Caging children in adult jails comes with myriad problems, not one of which is noted in the WESA piece. They are “particularly at risk” of sexual assault in an adult facility, per a National Prison Rape Elimination Commission report. As of 2011, children in adult jails were seven times more likely to be victims of prisoner-on-prisoner sexual assault.” They are often held in solitary confinement in adult jails, sometimes for the entirety of their pretrial detention, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. And children are 36 times more likely to die by suicide in an adult jail than in a youth jail. The practice of holding children in adult jails also disproportionately affects children of color. A Black child is about 80 percent more likely to be charged as an adult—as those in the Allegheny jail are—than a white child, and a Latinx child is about 40 percent more likely to be held in adult jail than a white child.
The segment also failed to scrutinize the deeply troubled Allegheny County Jail, instead spending much of the time commending it. A June 2018 Tribune-Review report accused the jail of violating federal law by failing to prevent the sexual abuse of women incarerated there. In October of last year, activists protested the jail’s placement of transgender women with male prisoners, saying the facility violated their civil rights. The jail is also under fire for accusations of medical neglect and housing pregnant people in solitary confinement (though, under pressure from the ACLU, this practice stopped in 2017.) And, in 2013, the former major in charge of the jail’s guards pleaded guilty to falsifying a report about punching a prisoner.
Even from the start, the language used in the WESA report shows a lack of critical reporting. The headline employs a loaded, prejudicial label, referring to the children profiled as “juvenile offenders.” First, “juvenile” is a ”Copspeak” term meant to criminalize youth based on mere accusation. (Though “minor” and “youth” are used once each, there is zero use of the word ”children.”) Second, it’s likely most of the children profiled haven’t been convicted of anything and are thus not “offenders.” According to University of Pittsburgh’s Institute of Politics, as of 2016, “81 percent of people in the Allegheny County Jail have not been convicted of the offense for which they are being held, compared to 62 percent nationally.”
Reform experts have asked journalists to stop using dehumanizing terms like “offender,” a policy even the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections—not known for its sensitivity—has adopted for people who complete their sentences. By leading off the story with stigmatizing labels in the headline and opening paragraphs, children held in adult jail are automatically put in a distinct moral category of Criminal. A headline like “In Pittsburgh, Children Awaiting Trial in Adult Jails Receive State Required Education” would have an entirely different connotation than WESA’s “In Pittsburgh, Juvenile Offenders At The Local Jail Go Back To School, Too.” The state meeting the bare minimum required by law is not a note of hope in a cruel system, it’s a part of this cruel system and should be presented as such.
As the 2016 Institute of Politics study explains, “In the past 20 years, the population of the Allegheny County Jail has increased by 70 percent even as crime rates have fallen.” Yet the segment reinforces the moralistic narrative that those in prison are there simply due to bad choices not any societal failures or racism. WESA’s Herring tells the listener, “The students also have a counselor who helps them to reflect on how their circumstances and decisions landed them behind bars, and how they might stop that from happening again.” The moral burden of managing incarceration’s cruelty is put squarely on the shoulders of the children, who are learning how they “might stop [their imprisonment] from happening again.” It’s a patronizing frame that favors empty “life choices” rhetoric over real reform.
Instead of interrogating the “circumstances” that contributed to these children being behind bars—or why the U.S. is incarcerating what Human Rights Watch calls an “extraordinary” number of children—the segment remains mum. Reporters should work to put these one-off stories of supposed hope behind bars into context and examine their systemic antecedents, rather than rest on saccharine human interest.