Burning Down the House

The End of Juvenile Prison

The nationally acclaimed “engrossing, disturbing, at times heartbreaking” (Van Jones) book that shines a harsh light on the abusive world of juvenile prisons, by the award-winning journalist

“Nell Bernstein’s book could be for juvenile justice what Rachel Carson’s book was for the environmental movement.” —Andrew Cohen, correspondent, ABC News

Winner, 2015 Media for a Just Society Award in the book category
Winner, 2015 ABA Silver Gavel Award in the book category
Honorable Mention, 2015 Scribes Book Award
Shortlisted, 2015 Ridenhour Book Prize

When teenagers scuffle during a basketball game, they are typically benched. But when Brian got into it on the court, he and his rival were sprayed in the face at close range with a chemical similar to Mace, denied a shower for twenty-four hours, and then locked in solitary confinement for a month.

One in three American children will be arrested by the time they are twenty-three, and many will spend time locked inside horrific detention centers that defy everything we know about what motivates young people to change. In what the San Francisco Chronicle calls “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 eloquently argues that there is no right way to lock up a child. The very act of isolation denies children the thing that is most essential to their growth and rehabilitation: positive relationships with caring adults.

Bernstein introduces us to youth across the nation who have suffered violence and psychological torture at the hands of the state. She presents these youths all as fully realized people, not victims. As they describe in their own voices their fight to maintain their humanity and protect their individuality in environments that would deny both, these young people offer a hopeful alternative to the doomed effort to reform a system that should only be dismantled. Interwoven with these heartrending stories is reporting on innovative programs that provide effective alternatives to putting children behind bars.

A landmark book, Burning Down the House sparked a national conversation about our inhumane and ineffectual juvenile prisons, and ultimately makes the radical argument that the only path to justice is for state-run detention centers to be abolished completely.


“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)
“An excellent piece of advocacy.”
Los Angeles Review of Books
“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
“Nell Bernstein’s new book could be for juvenile justice what Rachel Carson’s book was for the environmental movement.”
—Andrew Cohen
“An unflinching look at America’s unbalanced juvenile justice system.”
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

News and Reviews

Pacific Standard

Pacific Standard writes about Burning Down the House.

The American Bar Association has awarded Nell Bernstein’s Burning Down the Hous

The Awl

Sara Mayeux speaks with Nell Bernstein about her stance on abolishing juvenile prisons.

The National Memo

Read an excerpt from Burning Down the House.


Books by Nell Bernstein

All Alone in the World
Children of the Incarcerated

Nell Bernstein

Goodreads Reviews