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Juvenile Hell

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These kids (and midgets) will never make it on the outside.
In Real Life, juvenile detention centers, also known as juvenile hall or "juvy", are where minors are sentenced to serve criminal sentences, or for defying a court order. While they certainly are not pleasant experiences, the children are not meant to be strictly punished or to be cut off from society. The detention centers are ordered by law to provide counseling, full education, and healthcare to all detainees.

Not so in fiction. In fiction, juvenile hall is portrayed as something more akin to The Shawshank Redemption, with individual cells (almost all juvenile detention centers are minimum security), exercise yards, fences and/or high cement walls with barbed wire, social hierarchies and dominance, fiat money trading, and "long-timers" and "lifers". It is basically a children's version of the Prison Episode. It usually happens when the young protagonist (or side character) is sent to jail for a non-heinous crime (a prank, or a minor offense), and the episode is about how out of place they are. Compare Detention Episode.

However, this trope is usually seen as a parody; it is very rare this trope is played straight, because that would be far too depressing, and any show portraying it seriously would likely want to portray it realistically.

There is a grain of Truth in Television. There are juvenile detention centers for minors who have committed heinous crimes, such as rape, homicide, and armed robbery. However, these are deemed separate from the most common ones, and under almost all occasions, the character in question has not committed a crime like that. And even those still provide for basic needs of children. If the child's sentence extends into adulthood, the detainee is transferred to a regular prison.

Compare Department of Child Disservices. See also Orphanage of Fear, which is pretty similar in how it plays out. For adult prisons that deal out unnecessarily harsh punishments, see the Hellhole Prison.


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    Films — Live-Action 
  • The Archer: The reform camp is staffed by sadistic guards and a warden (who is also keeping girls there for money), not to mention very harsh punishments if they commit any infractions.
  • Bottoms: Invoked. Rumors begin spreading that PJ and Josie spent time in juvie over the summer. They never publicly deny these rumors as they provide notoriety, and regularly build on them by describing the "hellish treatment" they experienced, such as ritual hazing, regular betting on fight clubs, and several near-death experiences.
  • Pixote: A horrific, vicious juvenile reformatory where Prison Rape is common, the restrooms are covered in filth, and sadistic guards and wardens brutally beat and occasionally murder the inmates.
  • In Reform School Girls, the reform school is run by a sadistic warden, the head matron is a sexual predator, the girls do forced labour in the fields, and there are punishments including denial of food and solitary confinement.
  • Shoeshine: 1947 Italian film in which Street Urchins convicted of minor crimes (the protagonists were selling stolen U.S. Army blankets) are chucked into cold, dank prisons where they're fed starvation rations and left to die of TB.

  • Camp Greenlake in Holes is a juvenile detention center in the middle of a vast desert where kids are forced to dig a 5 foot-by-5 foot hole every day. They have no fences or guards because the camp is the only source of water within walking distance or so the "counselors" think, and if anyone does run away the staff let them dehydrate out in the waste. It's so terrible that kids have been known to let themselves get bitten by rattlesnakes to get out.
  • Humorously subverted in Captain Underpants where George and Harold were arrested for crimes that their evil twins committed. While they know their juvie cell isn't a Luxury Prison Suite, the living standards and treatment they're given is actually leaps and bounds better than what they've had to put up with in the Sadist Teacher-filled school they've been attending. They're even fully allowed to continue making comics while serving their time!
  • Boot Camp is set in Lake Harmony, an abusive camp for teens whose parents think their behavior is in need of correction. The camp is marketed as a "behavior-modification program" for severely troubled teens, but in fact they'll take anyone whose parents are rich enough to pay the tuition, ranging from actual delinquents to normal kids like Sarah and Pauly who didn't turn out the way their parents wanted. Inmates are violently beaten, humiliated, and forced to spend weeks lying on their stomachs in an isolation room for minor acts of disobedience, and the only way to advance through the ranks and eventually graduate is to show total obedience to the program, which includes participating in the abuse of lower-ranking kids. Two years ago, a boy died of heatstroke during a Physical Fitness Punishment, but the adults responsible suffered no consequences.

    Live-Action Television 
  • The Sierra Academy in the Quantum Leap (2022) episode "Stand By Ben" fits this to a T. Ben leaps into one of its students in the process of escaping with three others, who later tell him that they'd rather die than return to Sierra. Ben comes to learn that the school abuses the children who have been dumped into it, doesn't provide adequate schooling, and utilizes multi-day stints in outdoor Punishment Boxes — in the heat of summer — whenever students misbehave. In the original timeline, the school's director covers up the four teens' deaths during their time on the run; when they capture one of the teens later in the episode, they forcefully prod her broken ankle to make sure she isn't faking it.
  • The Wire: Baby Booking aka Boys Town has a fearsome reputation, although we don't really get to see it. Bodie escapes when he learns he'd be serving time mostly with kids from Washington DC who have a bitter rivalry with Baltimoreans, and Naymond begs Carver to be allowed to stay at the police station overnight instead of going to juvie, as he's heard ther is an ongoing gang war between the westside and eastside involving the use of Prison Rape as a weapon, which Carver admits is not untrue. Randy, in turn, ends up in a Group Home where he is immediately robbed and beat down for being a snitch.

  • Played for Drama in the autobiographical webcomic Joe vs. Elan School. Children at the titular school are berated by staff and their own peers near constantly, they are forced to fight each other in "the ring," and they have to be on alert 24/7 for their duration. Joe notices in his narration that this system is in, a sense, actually even worse than being in prison — in a regular prison, you still have some fundamental rights and protections, and prisoners of war are protected under the Geneva Convention. Elan, however, is allowed to operate without any oversight at all, and the kids held there effectively have no rights. Worst part is, some of the residents are actual child criminals, but the majority are in for minor offenses (like the author), or are innocent orphans dumped there by a foster system that can't be bothered to care for them. Horrifyingly, the author's accounts have been corroborated by other survivors of Elan School in real life.

    Western Animation 
  • A downplayed example can be found in the Fillmore! episode "To Mar a Stall," in which a student vandal Randal Julian, aka "Flava Sava," has been sentenced to solitary detention following his crimes against the school. When protagonists Fillmore and Ingrid arrive to question Randal about another tagger, they find he's locked up in a featureless white room with no furniture other than a television and a school desk and no access to writing materials — he's even wearing an orange jumpsuit, as would be expected at an adult prison. The episode is a Shout-Out to The Silence of the Lambs, so Randal's detention cell is meant to evoke the image of the prison Dr. Hannibal Lecter is kept in.
  • The Simpsons:
    • In "Marge Be Not Proud", Bart is caught shoplifting and the guard threatens him with juvenile hall if he catches him in the store again. When the Simpsons plan on going to that very store to have their Christmas photo taken, Bart has an Imagine Spot where he spends the holidays in juvie.
    • In "The Wandering Juvie", Bart actually does go to juvie for a fraud scheme.
  • South Park:
    • In "Cartman's Silly Hate Crime 2000", Cartman is accused of attacking Token for being black and is sent to juvenile hall, where he becomes the prison bitch of a tough kid called Romper Stomper. This episode is almost a perfect example of the trope, and is practically the Trope Codifier.
    • In "Preschool", it's revealed that the boys got a kid named Trent Boyett sent to juvie in preschool for starting a fire and severely injuring their teacher (although in actuality, it was the fault of the four main characters). The episode deals with Trent getting paroled five years later, coming out extremely muscled and tattooed, and going after the boys for revenge. And how determined is he? The sequence where he comes out shouts out the Scorsese remake of Cape Fear.
  • Total Drama: Duncan's audition tape has him escaping from one of those, with the obligatory alarms, searchlights and angry guard dogs all being present.

    Real Life 
  • Russian juveniles (maloletka) are infamous for their brutal prison gang culture, much more brutal than in adult prisons.
  • Therapeutic boarding schools, residential treatment centers, wilderness therapy programs, and other programs under the umbrella of the "Troubled Teen Industry" have this reputation. Survivors have testified to being forced to exercise to exhaustion and perform backbreaking labor, denied food and water, physically abused, and psychologically tortured. There have been numerous deaths — some suicides, some preventable illnesses and accidents, and some deaths as a result of violent restraint techniques being used on victims. These programs are primarily private-sector, as public sector and publicly-funded nonprofits that run similar programs tend to have more oversight in Real Life, so abusive personnel tend to get caught and punished more quickly. The program might be temporarily or permanently closed after an official investigation, depending on how serious or systemic the abuse was. Along with that, the above aren't for official juvenile offenders but "troubled teens" (which is very broadly defined), who are often sent there with permission of their parents or legal guardians for any number of reasons ranging from actual disciplinary or criminal offenses to things like wearing the wrong clothes, listening to the wrong music, having the wrong kind of friends, or anything else that rubs parents the wrong way; and are often sent there without a set time limit or other protections (such as being able to appeal).


Video Example(s):


Loona's Adoption

During the show, Blitzo has a traumatic flashback when a little girl (in-universe) asks Blitzo to adopt a dog. He remembers when he adopted Loona, about how she was an angry and scared hellhound in the adoption center, and would be "out of our hair next month" according to the adoption center. This caues Blitzo to freak out and refuse to give up the dog on the show he's acting in.

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Example of:

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