Kids in Custody, and in Crisis: Detention in New York

By Michelle Chen Aug 24, 2009

Hundreds upon hundreds of New York’s poorest Black and Latino youth have had to live in a place where they face violence and abuse at every turn, where kids wrestle with addiction and mental trauma, with their parents nowhere to be found. They haven’t been abandoned in neighborhood slums, they’ve been placed in “secure detention.” The Department of Justice’s extensive investigation of four of New York’s juvenile detention facilities sheds chilling light on a system plagued by unaccountability and abuse. The new report, released today, documents the routine use of excessive force by staff, which has traumatized and even broken the bones of children while authorities looked the other way. “Anything from sneaking an extra cookie to initiating a fistfight may result in a full prone restraint with handcuffs,” the investigators found. So who are these kids? In 2006, Human Rights Watch profiled two of the detention centers investigated by the Justice Department, Tryon and Lansing, where teenage girls were detained for both violent and nonviolent infractions. Often, they were refugees of the foster care system, arrested after spending most of their lives cycling through the homes of strangers. Many began their path to "delinquency" in school, where "zero tolerance" security tactics were used to keep disobedient kids in line. Drugs and mental health problems drove many children into detention, after poverty and isolation from the healthcare system had kept them shut out of early treatment programs. As the Times reported earlier this month, juvenile detention has become a makeshift "asylum" for children whose mental health needs have been neglected in their communities, due to poverty and social disinvestment. So they go into detention, where facility staff are eager to respond to the children’s “anti-social behavior” in kind, according to Human Rights Watch:

Girls described being restrained or witnessing others being restrained for: failing to hold their hands behind their back in the prescribed manner when standing in line, holding and waving a comb while speaking to a staff member, failing to make their bed correctly, talking back to staff or "acting out," misbehaving in school, not following directions, refusing to go swimming, "mouthing off," not raising their hands before speaking or acting, being loud, moving without permission, and "playing around." As a girl formerly held at Lansing stated, "They thought restraints were the answer to everything. They’d use them for anything."

The demographic profile of the state’s detention system, which holds about 1,000 in total, spells out which kids are dealt this kind of discipline:

In New York State, 54 percent of children in the general population are Caucasian, 20 percent are Latino, 18 percent are African-American, and 6 percent are Asian. In contrast, of the girls admitted to the Lansing and Tryon facilities over the last three years, 54 percent are non-Hispanic African-American, 19 percent are classified as Hispanic, 23 percent are non-Hispanic White, and none is Asian. 10 girls, or 3 percent of the total, are Native American…. Since 1995, African-American boys and girls have consistently accounted for close to 60 percent of children taken into [Office of Children and Family Services] custody.

And since 1995, many of those boys and girls probably grew up to become the latest additions to the state’s adult prison population, which is today roughly 80 percent people of color. Numerous studies have pointed out that kids caught up in the juvenile justice system are extremely likely to become criminally involved later in life. For some, juvenile prison may be as far as they’ll ever get. Darryl Thompson, a 15 year-old from the Bronx with behavioral issues, died in 2006 after he was handcuffed and pinned down by two staffers trying to “restrain” him at the Tryon Residential Center. Others will leave juvenile prison only to be dumped onto a threadbare social service system. One girl interviewed by Human Rights Watch recalled by shuttled into a local homeless shelter upon release:

It’s not good in there. I saw a lot of junkies, it’s cold and not homey, it’s scary, girls are always fighting. I’ve been sleeping at friends’ houses.

The federal monitoring of New York’s detention centers–part of a national initiative by the Justice Department–could spur ongoing reform efforts by Governor David Paterson’s administration, which has vowed to shift toward service-based intervention programs, improve oversight, and close “underutilized” facilities. But the state’s move to close budget gaps by slashing social services—which disproportionately burdens poor communities of color—suggest that for the foreseeable future, many more youth, whom society has denied the security of a stable home, will be delivered into the secure hands of the state. Image: Rene, 15 ("No Place for Children: Voices From Juvenile Detention" by Steve Liss)