By Ann-Karina Henriksen
Confinement of children and young people is a contested issue, because confinement can have detrimental effects on their mental and physical development. However, sometimes confinement can be the only way to keep young people from harming themselves or others. Thus, providing for troubled and troublesome young people is a difficult task imbued with dilemmas and contradictions between safeguarding, caring for and disciplining young people placed in state care.
Confinement is punishment
The research I conducted took place in secure institutions in Denmark, where young people are placed on either legal grounds for serious offending, or on social grounds due to serious concerns about their safety or well-being. There are only 10 percent girls and all the units are gender integrated. This made me curious about how girls experienced everyday life in secure institutions and how the staff handled girls in this setting. These institutions are difficult to access for outsiders and I felt grateful for being allowed inside to study how young people experience confinement and how gender comes to matter in these institutional spaces. I wanted to understand the institutional practices in the nexus between criminal justice and child protection, while also giving voice to the experiences of young people embedded in the punitive materiality of secure institutions. I became committed to relay their frustrations about being confined, uncertainties about the length of their stay, and struggles to comply with the rules and minute regulation of everyday life.
Marginalized girls in units “for boys”
The large majority of young people are placed in secure institutions as a form of surrogate imprisonment, to comply with UN Convention of the child, stating that minors should not be imprisoned with adults. However, the girls I interviewed and interacted with during my research were mostly placed in secure institutions on social grounds due to serious concerns about their safety or wellbeing. Their troubles entailed exposure to violence as victims and witnesses, drug abuse, truancy and socio-psychiatric disorders such as personality disorders, anxiety, self-harm or risk of suicide. Most of the girls in my study lived in units where the remaining residents were boys. The discrepancies in gender and grounds for placement were concerning and became a key issue in my research.
The girls become ‘doubly deviant’ in the institutional context, as a gender minority and a minority being placed on social grounds rather than legal grounds. While the staff were committed to providing gender-neutral treatment, I found that everyday activities largely served the needs and interests of the boys placed on grounds of serious offending. This was evident in sports activities such as soccer, basketball or lifting weights, the priority given to the wood and metal workshops, the selection of films and games in the units. Changes in everyday practices to include the girls or protect the girls from sexualized interaction with the boys often resulted in the marginalization of the girls in the units. The girls were always observed by staff and could not be alone with the boys. Thus, living in a unit with boys effectively denied the girls a space for unsupervised peer interaction, and girls were marginalized because the boys often chose to interact with other boys to avoid adult supervision.
Misplaced in institutions for offenders
My research published in Gender & Society demonstrates how institutional practices produce a range of gendered vulnerabilities that potentially harm girls placed in secure institutions. A secure institution is not a treatment facility and not all the staff are trained to deal with trauma, anxiety or self-harm. The young people placed on social grounds, and the girls in particular, were referred to by staff as a demanding task, requiring not only more but also different skills and resources in the staff, such as relational and communicative skills and insights into psychiatric treatment. I found that a range of gendered needs were omitted, such as those caused by gender based violence, that the voices of girls were obscured by viewing them though a lens of pathology, and that providing special treatment often resulted in peer group marginalization. While secure care may be a lenient measure, compared to prison, for young people with records of offending, it is a punitive form of treatment and protection for the young people placed on social grounds.
Ann-Karina Henriksen is a postdoctoral researcher in criminology and social work at Aalborg University, Denmark. Her research focuses on gender, youth and crime using qualitative methods. She has previously published particularly on issues related to girls’ violent conflicts and currently explores gendered practices and experiences of young people in secure institutions. Her research has been funded by the Danish Council for Independent Research.