Perceptions of Young Prisoners

Published 24 Oct 2017

This study investigates the perceptions of young people incarcerated in two different types of facilities, juvenile detention centers and adult prisons. The author of this study analyzed data collected by another researcher, but the details of the original investigation are provided in a way that would facilitate replication of the original study. The author hypothesized that young people in juvenile facilities would recognize the increased focus on rehabilitation and treatment provided by detention facilities when responding to a number of interview questions. The results did not support this hypothesis because young prisoners expressed a more positive view of the services provided in adult prisons compared to juvenile detention centers.

Kupchik utilized an interesting analysis strategy to assign rankings to largely qualitative interview statements. From their statements, quantitative values were placed on the availability of services. These values were termed indexes and included a measure of institutional services offered, staff mentorship, and fairness. These indexes represented the dependent variables for this study. The independent variable was the type of facility where the youth was housed (i.e. adult or juvenile). Five different facilities were surveyed to ensure that the study would represent a comparison of adult versus juvenile programs rather than merely a comparison between two prison settings. It should also be noted that this study aimed to investigate what youth offenders perceived rather than actual availability of services in these facilities. From an objective perspective, the juvenile detention centers offered several more rehabilitative, counseling, and drug treatment programs.

This study faced a number of potential ethical barriers to reach a useful decision. Finding privacy in a jail to conduct interviews was certainly a challenge. Confidentiality was not fully achieved for some participants because it was necessary for a guard to remain close by for the protection of the researcher. Prisoners are considered a vulnerable population due to their lack of access to a number of basic decisions. Some argue that prisoners are more influenced to participate in a research study because even additional freedom from a cell or the opportunity to converse with a new individual is a motivating incentive. Because this study did not present any potentially harmful experiences to the young prisoners, it’s ethical soundness is easily defended. Researchers must often take additional steps to receive approval to conduct investigations in prison settings, but this study illustrates the need for a better understanding of the incarcerated youth population. Kupchik’s findings motivate the need for future research to uncover the reason why young offenders seem to overlook the stated goals of juvenile facilities. This misperception may lead to decreased participations in these programs that are designed to aid their rehabilitation.

The limitations of this study provide further ground for future studies. The sample could be considered one of convenience because 5 prison and detention centers in the area that agreed to participated were surveyed. A more representative sample of prisoners is needed because very few Caucasian prisoners were interviewed. A larger sample size is also needed to generalize results. With only 95 prisoners surveyed across 5 facilities, there’s a higher likelihood for individual participant and facility differences to contaminate the results.

Overall, these limitations are relatively minor and do not cloud the applied value of these findings to this population. Incarcerated young people do not perceive the availability of services that the juvenile system aims to provide.


  • Kupchik, A. (2007) The correctional experiences of youth in adult and juvenile prisons. Justice Quarterly: 24(23), 247-270.
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