Youth Development Through Incarceration! What’s the Story with That?©

Posted on January 14, 2015 by David Blumenkrantz

By: David G. Blumenkrantz


 I just can’t help but think that this video - Mass Incarceration in America is the best data that documents the real outcome of our youth development and education programs.

How did America become the most incarcerating nation on earth with 4% of the world’s population and 25% of the world’s incarcerated people? One thing is for certain. Everyone incarcerated today was once a child who didn’t think they’d ever wind up in prison when they were born.

41% of our children have been arrested by the time they turn 23. What does this reality say about our national policy and programs in education and child development?

Louise Carus Mahdi , editor of two seminal volumes on rites of passage said: “Prisons are houses of failed initiation.” The data says that our system’s policies and programs are failing to help our children come of age. Program designs are polarized by politics and  characterized by disconnected professional service delivery that focuses on fixing problems. The magnitude of the prison system in America exemplifies this story.

Right here in Connecticut we see how the road to incarceration is being paved. Last year 227 youth, adjudicated delinquent were incarcerated at the Connecticut Juvenile Training School, (CJTS). 200 were black, Hispanic or another minority, which is well above their representation in the general population.

Children as young as 12 are taken out of their homes and communities incarcerated and initiated into the criminal world. “It’s going to a purely criminal model. There’s nothing personal or individualized about this,” Abby Anderson, executive director of the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance said of the juvenile justice system. In fact, according to a study the longer youth were incarcerated the more crimes they committed upon release and the more likely they were to be re-incarcerated. One in two youth released are re-incarcerated.

We’re failing our children

What’s the story with these “houses of failed initiation” in which children are placed? They are not primarily places of treatment or correction, but punishment and another example of being hard on crime by taking children out of their homes and community. Preventing crime by locking our children away in prison.

We spend approximately $100,000.00/year per prisoner and roughly $11,153.00/year per student in public education. Incarceration represents a “$75,000,000,000 per/year failed experiment.” Preferring to spend money to incarcerate and punish rather than educate and prepare people for healthy engaged and productive lives is just plain bad policy.

What can be done? Change the Story


 Forty years ago I worked at Long Lane School, the predecessor of the present CJTS. In 1975 it was more like a private residential school with an open campus where students lived in cottages with “cottage parents”. Today it looks like a prison. Back then I introduced and helped to institute Guided Group Interaction, which established a “positive peer culture” where students mentored other students and all were immersed in learning and living lessons on values and behaviors that fostered compassion and respect.

We instituted a wilderness program and built a ropes course, which was actually made out of rope. Every student went on overnight journeys down the Connecticut River in canoes and camping adventures on the Appalachian Trail. These program designs intentionally integrated rites of passage elements. Immersion in the natural world pitched youth out of their self-focused ways of survival. It was the great equalizer and opened opportunities for personal exploration unparrelled for these youth in conventional settings. Young people separated from their homes and communities were not spoken of as delinquent, incarcerated and isolated and punished for aberrant antisocial offenses. That was one type of story. Rather, they arrived at a place and were ready for initiation at Long Lane School, which was reframed as the setting for their rite of passage experience. It was a “house of fruitful initiation.”

I said then, and it’s no different now, that if it takes a whole village to raise a child then no child should be sent away from their village without members of the village standing right along side of them. After all, it was, in part, the village that has failed the child. With input from their parents, and/or guardians and family each youth could select a “sponsor,” ideally a man and women, who would serve as proxy parents and be present when their “child” entered their new residence. These proxy parent mentors would participate with “their child” in a ritual induction into the setting that is reframed as a place of initiation. These mentors are knowledgeable of and intimately involved in the initiatory process. They know this path that youth are on and are able to support and guide them on their journey. Most important they will be there when their child returns to the community and help to prepare the appropriate re-entry rituals, including family and community. Here their sons or daughters will demonstrate the lessons learned, declare their commitment to values and behaviors to fulfill their responsibility to themselves, their family and community. Their family and community witness and affirm their child’s transition into the next phase of their rite of passage.


Human evolution is one of the best clinical trials for producing evidence that a particular set of practices is effective for achieving a desired and anticipated outcome. There may be no greater evidence than the practice of youth and community development through rites of passage for helping our children to come of age and become healthy, contributing members of their community. The time is right for rites of passage to be part of our story for youth development. It sure will be better than incarceration for youth development!


Mahdi, Louis Carus. Foster, S. & Little, M. Betwixt & Between: Patterns of Masculine and Feminine InitiationMulvey, Edward. University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. ©The Connecticut Mirror. Jacqueline Rabe Thomas© David Blumenkrantz, 2015. No permission is granted to copy, extract language or design principles, without permission and appropriate reference and citation.Join the conversation by emailing your thoughts, comments or questions to – or join the conversation on the ROPE® Facebook page.
Posted in ROPE

Read more about Youth & Community Development through Rites of Passage in the new and highly acclaimed book by Dr. David Blumenkranz.

David Blumenkrantz, Ph.D., Ed.M., Founder & Executive Director, the Center for Youth & Community

What I’m Writing About

Recent Posts


Why This Blog Now?

It’t time for a Paradigm Shift – a fundamental change in beliefs, theory and approach – in developing community-centered responses to the challenges faced by today’s Youth & Community. More here>>