Burning Down the House

The End of Juvenile Prison

A heartbreaking and meticulously reported indictment of our nation’s failed juvenile justice policy, by the award-winning journalist and advocate

“Engrossing, disturbing, at times heartbreaking, Burning Down the House offers a seed of hope: a future where all children are valued and free. Told in the voices of children kept in cages, this book should fuel the growing movement to curb America’s uniquely excessive reliance on juvenile incarceration.” —Van Jones, author of Rebuild the Dream

When teenagers scuffle on the basketball court, they are typically benched for the game. But when Brian got into it on the court inside a juvenile prison, he was sprayed in the face with a chemical fogger, denied a shower, and then locked in solitary for a month. 

One in three American schoolchildren will be arrested by the time they are twenty-three, many of them for so-called status offenses—including cutting school, drinking alcohol, or disrespecting a police officer—that are not crimes for adults. Despite recent reforms, too many youths will land in horrific state detention facilities where children as young as twelve are preyed upon by guards; driven mad by months in solitary; and, in their own words, “treated like animals.” Beyond these abuses, the very act of isolating children in punitive prisons denies delinquent youth the one thing essential to rehabilitation: positive relationships with caring adults. In this clear-eyed indictment of a failed institution—the juvenile detention facility—award-winning journalist Nell Bernstein shows that there is no right way to lock up a child.

Nell Bernstein is both an acclaimed writer and a tireless advocate for kids in the criminal justice system. Her previous book, All Alone in the World, was called “heartwrenching” by the San Antonio Observer, “meticulously reported and sensitively written” by Salon, and helped create a nationwide movement to protect children of incarcerated parents. Now she turns her eye to children who are themselves incarcerated. She allows imprisoned youth to describe in their own voices the fight to hold on to hope and humanity in an environment custom-designed to deny both.

Bernstein—whose work “deserves to be placed alongside other classics of the genre such as Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities, Alex Kotlowitz’s There Are No Children Here, and Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s Random Family” according to the San Francisco Chronicle—delivers an epic work of investigative journalism that lays bare our nation’s brutal and counterproductive juvenile prisons and is a clarion call to bring our children home.


“Nell Bernstein’s new book could be for juvenile justice what Rachel Carson’s book was for the environmental movement.”
— Andrew Cohen
“In the haunting voices of children shut away in nightmarish facilities, their lives defined by abuse and brutality, Nell Bernstein brings to light the betrayal of the juvenile court’s promise of ‘rehabilitation.’ With her empathetic ear, sharp, impassioned prose, and deft use of compelling evidence, Nell Bernstein is the ideal messenger for the many thousands of children who will go to sleep tonight on a concrete bunk in an empty cell, convinced that there is no place for them in the world.”
— Ayelet Waldman, editor of Inside This Place, Not of It
“A riveting must-read for anyone on the ‘outside’ with influence to send kids to the ‘inside’ of juvenile prisons. This exposé of the anguish, pain, and suffering of kids we place inside the razor wires, all for a false sense of public safety, should provoke in all of us to carry the torch to ‘Burn Down the House.’”
— Judge Steven C. Teske, chief judge, Clayton County Juvenile Court, and author of Reform Juvenile Justice Now
Burning Down the House by Nell Bernstein reveals a shocking truth: what adults do to children behind the walls of America’s juvenile prisons is criminal. If we want to change the United States’ senseless addiction to incarceration, the best possible place to start is transforming how our justice system treats our children. This book shows just how that can be done.”
— Piper Kerman, author of Orange Is the New Black
“Drawing on well-documented history, compelling research, and her strong sense of justice, Nell Bernstein asks a provocative question: why do we have juvenile prisons? Seizing the momentum of the sharp decline in imprisoned youth, this smart and humane book makes a persuasive case that the time for tinkering has passed. Bernstein leads the reader to ask a heretical question: are we witnessing the beginning of the end?”
— Jeremy Travis, president, John Jay College of Criminal Justice
“Passionate, thoughtful, and well-researched, this is a resounding call to action.”
Publishers Weekly (starred review)

News and Reviews

San Francisco Chronicle

The San Francisco Chronicle reviews Burning Down the House.

NPR’s Fresh Air

Listen to an interview with Nell Bernstein on Fresh Air


Nell Bernstein interview on Alternet

Tavis Smiley Show

Nell Bernstein interview on the Tavis Smiley Show


Books by Nell Bernstein

All Alone in the World
Children of the Incarcerated

Nell Bernstein