With the highest incarceration rate in the world, the United States has designated juvenile detention facilities as the primary method for school administrators, parents and others to regulate youth behavior. Despite the negative life outcomes that generally result for those who are institutionalized, facilities continue to emerge throughout the country. In using prisons to control youth insubordination, the U.S. has imprisoned itself in a perpetual, calamitous system that impedes societal growth, prosperity and ambition for many young people.

Suniti Sharma, Ph.D., assistant professor of education, has conducted extensive research on the literacy and education of females in prison, focusing on how race, class, gender, sexual orientation and other factors lead to incarceration. Ten years ago, she was offered a position teaching English at a female juvenile detention facility. A gifted educator who possessed more than 14 years of English teaching experience in her hometown of New Delhi, India, Sharma accepted the position and moved to the U.S. to work at the facility.

Sharma was told by the detention facility that the majority of her students were ‘trouble-makers’ and ‘delinquents’; however, she found exactly the opposite. They were well-mannered, smart and respectful — each possessing a genuine love for learning. Many had been subjected to sexual abuse (an astounding 75 percent), or domestic violence, had drug-addicted parents or were victims of circumstances entirely beyond their control. “The students ranged in age from 10 to 26, so I had to be sensitive to the wide age gap,” explains Sharma.

There were major differences between the ethnic populations at the juvenile detention center. “The white students resisted the black staff, and the black students resisted the white staff,” says Sharma. “I was the first person hired by the facility who was not an American citizen. My students considered me an outsider — just as they were — and connected with me on a deeper level.”

In an effort to understand the racial dynamics between her students, Sharma enrolled in a multicultural class at Purdue University. At the end of the semester, her professor offered her a seat in the doctoral program, impressed with her research on insubordination. She accepted his offer, and continued researching juvenile incarceration. Her studies eventually led to her book, Girls Behind Bars: Reclaiming Education in Transformative Spaces, which details possible solutions on how to help prisoners reclaim education.

Many schools throughout the U.S. have a zero-tolerance policy. Originally implemented to curb drug abuse and arson, the policy soon became an excuse for educators to force ‘unruly’ students out of school for failing to fit the mold they require students to appropriate. They are often sent to detention facilities for relatively minor misdemeanors, such as failing to turn in homework, skipping class or cursing. Instead of attempting to understand why students behave negatively, school administrators force them out of the system. “Schools are held accountable for maintaining high test scores,” says Sharma. “Those who bring these scores down are removed.”

According to Sharma, many young people exhibit defiance because something is occurring in their lives that teachers don’t take the time to understand. “Schools often fail to make students’ emotional wellbeing a priority,” Sharma explains. “When there is a budget cut, the counseling department is the first to be eliminated.”

According to Sharma’s research, one out of four students in detention facilities will spend their entire lives in prison. In an effort to improve these statistics, she recently organized a literacy project where she assists students on probation with reading to determine if providing one-on-one tutoring helps them graduate on time. “Teachers, parents and others must be patient when working with students who behave poorly and attempt to understand why they act this way,” Sharma says. “It is only then that effective change will take place.”