Minnesota’s Juvenile System

As Diane entered adolescence and was more uncontrollable than ever, her parent brought the family back to Minneapolis. Aged 13, hanging out with the “tough” kids, those who accepted a stranger without much fuss, Diane began smoking, wandering the streets with her new friends at night, and staying out late. She eventually came into contact with the law when she stole ten dollars from a small local store to buy shoes for a friend who needed them. Diane was put on probation, supervised by her parents. Failure was inevitable. Their failure to supervise her became her failure under the system that was in place. No one advocated for her in that court then, and the court chose to remove Diane from her parents’ care and place her in the care of the state. The institution that took her was the Home School for Girls in Sauk Centre, Minnesota. (Images courtesy of forgotten minnesota}

The Minnesota Home School for Girls

The Home School for Girls was founded as an Industrial school in the early twentieth century. The “cottage system” by which it was organized came about in the late nineteenth century as a progressive solution to earlier state mental hospitals.

Petit Cottage (built 1924)

Sauk Centre accepted girls from age 8 to 18, committed by court order for a crime. For stealing ten dollars and then violating her parole, Diane was incarcerated two years in Sauk Centre, an indeterminate sentence that depended on a parole board to decide when she could be released.

I believe Diane was sent to Sauk Centre because the judge felt she would have better care than her parents could provide. The judge probably was unacquainted with the reality of life in Sauk Centre for the girls there. Her experiences in Sauk Centre are thoroughly documented in the first chapter of Incorrigible, especially her intake process, itself traumatizing, her escape attempt, and her detention in solitary confinement for ten days.

In 2016 President Obama issued an executive order banning solitary confinement for all juvenile offenders in federal confinement. In international law, solitary confinement for juveniles has been banned and compared to torture. Nonetheless, several states continue the practice. In Diane’s case, its effects were both immediate and lifelong. Among other consequences she had phobias for her whole life, such as the inability to ride in elevators.

The measures Sauk Centre staff took to instill discipline in the girls under their care were commonly used in many states during that era. A 1974 made-for-TV movie called Born Innocent, starring Linda Blair, was based on the memoir of a former superintendent of an Oklahoma state school for girls, documenting the abuse suffered by girls in that state. Diane and I visited Sauk Centre in 1993 and spoke to the school’s superintendent. He said that the era when Diane was confined there was the “most repressive” time in its history. Some of the habits Diane learned while at the school lasted, like the trauma, all her life.

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