Gender Matters : The Perspectives and Experiences of Living Unit Staff in Juvenile Correctional Facilities Public Deposited

http://ir.library.oregonstate.edu/concern/graduate_thesis_or_dissertations/4j03d388g

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  • Front line staff members in youth correctional facilities are generally the primary adults in the lives of incarcerated young people. In many ways, they serve as surrogate parents who may promote positive development while holding delinquent youth accountable for their actions. They accomplish these often conflicting goals through the provision of round-the-clock care and the facilitation of therapeutic treatment groups within the secure environment of the institution. Research indicates that correctional staff members not only shape the day-to-day lives of confined youth but they also affect both the incarceration experience and treatment outcomes. Consequently, front line staff play a crucial role in the implementation of juvenile justice policies and are largely responsible for the youth authority’s rehabilitation efforts. In fact, the relationships between front line staff and youth are often considered to be the foundation of juvenile justice treatment programming. As primary socializing agents in the lives of incarcerated youth, living unit staff have the potential to shape not only how young people feel about themselves but also what they expect for their future lives. This occurs through daily interactions between staff and youth as well as staff role modeling. However, there is limited research that examines the perspectives of youth correctional staff members about the incarcerated young people they supervise or how they attempt to accomplish treatment goals. Although the early juvenile justice system was focused on rehabilitation rather than punishment, the lack of research showing those policies to be effective and an increase in youth crime caused the philosophical pendulum to swing in the opposite direction. An era of “get tough on crime” followed, which included more punitive juvenile justice policies and less focus on the reformation of delinquent young people. Subsequent scientific research about adolescent development and the ineffectiveness of more punitive approaches have returned the focus to rehabilitative treatment programming for incarcerated youth. One such approach is based on the Positive Youth Development (PYD) framework, which argues that all young people are resources which can developed if given the proper resources. A key component of PYD is the importance of positive, supportive relationships to help youth embrace prosocial beliefs and adopt prosocial behavior. There has also been a recent push for gender-responsive treatment programming in the juvenile justice system that considers the different risk experiences, pathways to crime, and developmental needs of boys and girls. Since front line staff are responsible for the daily care and rehabilitation of incarcerated youth, it is pivotal to understand their viewpoints on the boys and girls they supervise and the role of correctional staff in helping young people meet treatment goals. In a total insitution such as a youth correctional facility, where young people are segregated by gender and have little contact with individuals outside the institution, the views of staff about the gendered attributes of the youth they supervise is an important component of how they might shape the gender identities and beliefs of both boys and girls. Furthermore, examining the ways that correctional staff attempt to rehabilitate the youth in their care and promote positive outcomes can be an important tool for assessing the role of staff in helping achieve the goals of the juvenile justice system. This is especially true when a gender-responsive strategy is employed and staff members are charged with meeting the unique treatment needs of both boys and girls. Through the qualitative analysis of interview data, this study found that front line staff do characterize boys and girls in very different ways, with a significant negative bias against girls. In terms of relationships with staff, which includes the components of communication, engagement, and conflict, as well as conflict with peers, boys and girls were described in nearly polar opposite ways. These differences were reflected in the ways living unit staff described what youth need from them while incarcerated. While staff suggested that both boys and girls need many of the same things, such as care and compassion, structure, and role modeling, there were some gendered differences such as an emphasis on building relationships with girls and building character in boys. The perspectives of those who have first-hand experience working with incarcerated youth and are primarily responsible for treatment programming provide valuable information about the implementation of the juvenile justice system’s rehabilitation efforts, especially in an era of gender-responsive programming and PYD. The findings from this study provide insight into the ways that living unit staff conceptualize and interact with incarcerated young people, with an eye toward gendered differences, and should inform juvenile justice policy decisions about the rehabilitation of delinquent youth.
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