Giving Voice To Youth Incarcerated In Adult Facilities

March 26, 2024

In many states across the country, youths are serving life or near-life sentences in adult facilities. Until recently, little was known about the experiences of these incarcerated youths. However, a team of researchers from the MSU School of Criminal Justice has been working to change that.

Dr. Cait Cavanagh, the lead researcher on the team, says this project is filling a void in justice system research by giving voice to youth in adult facilities.

Photo of Dr. Cait Cavanagh“Justice system research that does not include the voices of those impacted is incomplete; we must allow these individuals the opportunity to advocate for themselves and their experiences to provide a more holistic understanding of the impacts of youthful incarceration.”


Youth and adult facilities differ greatly from one another, which creates a polarizing experience for youth incarcerated in youth facilities compared to youth incarcerated in adult facilities. While youth facilities are focused on rehabilitation and have a range of services available, such as education, adult facilities generally have fewer services available and are focused primarily on punishment.

The difference in the aims of youth vs adult facilities was a cause of concern for the researchers regarding incarcerated youth. The research team notes that handing down lifelong, or near lifelong, sentences to youth and placing them in adult facilities did not allow for incarcerated youth to undergo transformative rehabilitation and aspire to contribute to society in a positive way in the future.

Researchers found that the incarcerated youths were often ignorant of their legal rights, were less culpable than their adult counterparts, and were often involved in dysfunctional environments prior to incarceration. The researchers also found a concerning trend in that many youths discussed vulnerability to violence and abuse during incarceration.

Dr. Cavanagh says “As a developmental psychologist and juvenile justice researcher, I found it surprising the clarity with which letter writers retrospectively described their own developmental immaturity at the time of their offense. Although perhaps less surprising, I was also struck by the massive loss of human potential instigated by incarceration for life or near-life sentences; many of the letter writers already are and aspired to continue being a positive force to those around them.”

Looking ahead, the research team hopes to translate their findings into actionable policy recommendations, including early intervention strategies, raising the age of majority, and enhancing rehabilitative services for incarcerated youth.