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 he/she is. 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 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
- 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 crime 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!
- 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.
- 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 centers, and the like 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. Tends to be more of a problem for the private sector, though. Public sector and publicly-funded nonprofits that run similar programs tend to have more oversight in Real Life, so the abusive personnel tend to get caught more quickly and punished. The program might be temporarily or permanently closed after an official investigation, depending on how serious or systemic the abuse was.