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 new 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

In what the San Francisco Chronicle called “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 good way to lock up a child. Making the radical argument that state-run detention centers should be abolished completely, her “passionate and convincing” (Kirkus Reviews) book points out that our system of juvenile justice flies in the face of everything we know about what motivates young people to change.

Called “a devastating read” by Truthout, Burning Down the House received a starred Publishers Weekly review and was an In These Times recommended summer read. Bernstein’s heartrending portraits of young people abused by the system intended to protect and “rehabilitate” them are interwoven with reporting on innovative programs that provide effective alternatives to putting children behind bars.

The result is a work that the Philadelphia Inquirer called “a searing indictment and a deft strike at the heart of America’s centuries-old practice of locking children away in institutions”—a landmark book that has already launched a new national conversation.


“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
“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
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
“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.”

News and Reviews


Nell Bernstein interview on Alternet

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

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

Goodreads Reviews