Growing up Chandler Hickenbottom didn’t get to see a lot of her older brother, Lexis Figuereo, mostly on visits to a handful of juvenile detention centers where he spent much of his youth.
But standing outside the Saratoga County Jail Friday night, as the sun set slowly behind the squat but imposing building, the sister and brother embraced in a tearful hug, united in the movement for Black lives.
“At 24 years old, I should know my brother more than I do,” Hickenbottom said, addressing a diverse crowd of more than 60 activists and community members gathered on the latest stop in a “freedom tour” of jails across the Capital Region. Speakers described how the incarceration system separated families, set back children’s lives and devastated the Black community in particular.
“We should be able to know our family,” Hickenbottom said.
When Figuereo was about 12 years old, he was regularly absent from school in Saratoga Springs or acted out when he did go to school. The truancy problem eventually hit the courts in the form of a person in need of supervision case, known as PINS, unleashing the mechanics of a system that separated Figuereo from his family, forced him to defend himself against violent attacks, introduced him to gang life and led him toward actual criminal behavior.
“It basically sets these kids up for failure,” Hickenbottom said of the PINS system, which can be initiated by parents or some governments agencies like schools. “It’s really shameful.”
As speakers rallied the crowd for over two hours – with Saratoga County sheriff’s officers monitoring from the nearby rooftop of the county’s new administrative building – Figuereo helped coordinate on the event’s margins, working with other area activists to organize Friday’s rally and many others – network of friends and supporters Figuereo said he had never met anyone in until the past two months.
“He was a good kid,” Hickenbottom said. “He’s an amazing man. My brother is running a movement.”
Figuereo, now 33, spent his earliest years in New York City but moved to the Capital Region around 10 years old. His first experience as a young student in the area, though, did not set him up for a positive and supportive experience in school. Other students called him the n-word starting on the bus ride, and continued to bully him. He said he grew angry and isolated and at times lashed out, fought back and skipped school.
“I never felt wanted or comfortable,” he said. “I had a lot of anger because of how I was made to feel.”
He spent time at Ballston Spa schools and his school problems continued in Saratoga Springs. His mom, Nedra Hickenbottom, remembered constant conversations with the school’s truancy officer. She said he was a bright kid but got bored in class and started to see school as “not cool” as he got older.
They both recalled that in 1998 school and social services officials suggested that Figeureo’s mom should initiate a PINS or they would. Hickenbottom said she thought he would go to a vocational school. He soon ended up at a secure juvenile detention center in Albany. However long his initial detainment was supposed to be, Figuereo said, he spent years locked up after delayed hearings and extensions of his detainment consumed much of adolescence. He spent around 18 months at three separate youth detention facilities – in Albany, near Ithaca and in the Berkshires. By the time he was let out, his PINS case had become a juvenile delinquency charge, his closest network of friends were connected to illicit behavior and he was further behind in school than ever.
When he entered the system, he was younger than many of the other detained youth, who were being held on wide variety of violations. He remembered waking up in the middle of the night with two or three older kids attacking him. He said fights and attacks happened regularly as retribution or as a display of strength or for no reason at all. It’s hard to follow the rules, he said, when you have to fight to protect yourself. He said he joined a “real-deal gang” as he sought out a support system among the other kids around him.
“I felt like I wanted to have a group of people who would have my back,” he said. “They were my friends.”
He said guards would play favorites or take bribes and would get physical when restraining youth. He said sometimes they would hold him to the ground with a knee on his back, obstructing his airflow.
“Plenty of times I couldn’t breathe,” he remembered. “They are on my chest, on my back.”
Behaviors fostered by the environment of the detention centers – defending oneself, being angry and obstinate – would regularly result in an extension of the time before he could be released, Figuereo said. He also tried to run away or skip out on parole while on a break at home. While in detention, he was strip-searched; he wore shackles and handcuffs to hearings, escorted by officers, he said. He called his experience in youth detention centers “real jail shit.”
“I hated the world because of all the stuff I’m going through in my life and things not being fair,” he said of how he felt at the time. “Where are they going to put me next? When is this going to end? When am I going to get out of here and try to be regular?”
Eventually his time was up – about five years after he entered the system over school truancy problems – and when he was about 16 years old he returned to society. But his friends and connections kept him tied to low-level crime. After leaving the juvenile system, he spent time “in the streets” of Albany, selling weed and taking the literal beatings of street life.
“I learned how to be a criminal,” he said of his time in detention.
From nightmare to the front lines
Nedra Hickenbottom moved to the Capital Region with her two oldest kids in 1994, leaving he Bronx where she had grown up with hope of cutting down on her commute and making her own home. But after only a few short years her new life upstate was traumatized by the incarceration of her son. She traveled across the state to visit him every week and caught short moments with him at court hearings.
“It’s like a nightmare,” she said of the days she spent without her son, wondering what horrible news awaited the other side of any phone call. “I can’t sleep to this day, and I wasn’t able to when they were young.”
For both mother and son, so much of Figuereo’s formative childhood years is now a blur.
“I just know he was in there forever,” she said. “He wasn’t in school, he was in lockup. What kind of thing is this? To have a system take your child away from you in such a way it makes it ten times worse. It makes you fearful of every little thing.”
Figuereo spent his 18th birthday sipping a smoothie through a straw, because his mouth was wired shut after getting jumped by rivals. He said since he couldn’t talk he had time to reflect and started to envision a more positive track for himself. He also saw his dad sentenced to eight years after getting caught up in a federal drug sting; his dad, who came to the United State from the Dominican Republic but was not a U.S. citizen, was eventually deported. “I reflected on the future. I decided I wanted to go to school,” he said. “I had a dream, a vision.”
He passed the GED, studied acting and culinary arts in college, including at SUNY Schenectady, and started working in the restaurant industry. He moved to Miami and lived there for a while, moving back to Saratoga County about four years ago.
Figuereo now lives in Ballston Spa with his girlfriend and is raising his 5-year-old stepson and baby daughter. How works as a server and bartender and has held positions at various spots in Saratoga Springs, currently at Solevo.
He remembered learning about the civil rights movement from his mom but never participated in local activism himself. “I was all for it, but I never saw myself on the front line,” he said.
Then after George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis on May 25 and protests stirred the country, Figuereo joined his first march in Saratoga Springs. He said he had had enough after watching the video of Floyd’s death. At the Saratoga event, he found himself on the front line after all, and decided to organize another demonstration in downtown soon after. Then another and another.
Figuereo said he has attended dozens of rallies and protests around the Capital Region in the past two months, giving up much of his time to organizing meetings, protests and the behind-the-scenes work of activism. On Friday, he helped organize and lead the rally outside the county jail. On Sunday, he led another protest outside Saratoga Springs City Hall, urging the community to care more about the harm being done to Black bodies than destruction of property. His mother said she has never seen her son devoted to anything as much as he is to his burgeoning activism; he agreed. Figuereo is the Saratoga organizer for All of Us, an organization formed by Schenectady activists recently to coordinate social activists and demonstrations in the region.
Jamaica Miles, one of the organization’s founders, said Figuereo has emerged as an essential leader in the growing movement, standing up as a vocal Black man in a predominantly white area.
“Here’s this young Black man in the middle of one of whitest areas in the Capital Region, and he’s standing up for justice,” Miles said. “He’s leading with a vision. This is someone who knows exactly what justice looks like and wants to realize it for his local community… who is willing to share part of themselves to move forward the movement not just for themselves but for everyone around them.”
Miles said Figuereo’s experience and willingness to share that experience is a powerful message, particularly for young people who often struggle to envision a better world than what Figuereo and so many others have gone through.
“Far too many of our young people consider it a rite of passage. Society has told you this is how you are supposed to make it through life,” Miles said of youth incarceration. “It means a lot to all of the young people who are going through that right now to know it should not be that way and to imagine a world where it doesn’t have to be that way. That’s what Lexis is giving all of us.”
‘I don’t want them to presume that just because it’s the law it’s beneficial’
Melissa Breger, an Albany Law School professor who specializes in family law and in the past represented hundreds of youth on PINS cases or charged as juvenile delinquents, said Figuereo’s experiences as a youth in detention are all too common in her experience. She said she often heard from her clients about violence, gang activity and abuse from guards. She said time in detention is often extended – sometimes at the request of private detention centers – for what in other settings might be viewed as common misbehavior among young people, deepening a cycle of incarceration and family trauma.
“In most ways, it was no different than a prison,” she said of the youth detention centers, noting that some of the most infamous centers had been closed in recent years but that systemic problems persist. “These problems are still happening, even with the closure of certain places.”
While recent initiatives aim to keep detained youth “close to home,” Breger said many of her clients in Brooklyn were sent to centers all over the state, making it difficult or impossible for family to visit. She said incarcerated youth are often exposed to others with criminal experience and can be driven toward gangs as a means of protection or community.
“Oftentimes, the irony would be these children left places more savvy about to how commit crimes,” Breger said.
Breger said PINS can be beneficial in some cases but that it’s also debatable whether court involvement leads to better outcomes. She said she challenges her law students to consider whether the PINS process serves its purposes within the court system.
“Every time I teach juvenile law, I ask every single student to tell me his or her opinion whether we should even have PINS, whether the courts should be involved,” she said. “I don’t want them to presume that just because it’s the law it’s beneficial. For some teens and families, it is very helpful, yet for others, the cases can be harmful for any number of reasons.”
She said PINS cases can serve as a “pipeline” into more serious juvenile delinquency charges and eventually the adult criminal justice system and that outcomes in the juvenile system are shaped by implicit racial biases and systemic racism – even if the juvenile courts themselves are not racist. She also noted that the data is “overwhelmingly consistent” that youth of color are overrepresented in the juvenile justice system.
In a 2019 University of Richmond Law Review article, Breger argued the court system needs to focus on addressing the implicit biases of judges that have a disproportionate impact on Black respondents, calling for a more diverse judiciary and audits of judicial decisions for signs of implicit bias. She said the risks of implicit bias in family court cases can be exacerbated by the amount of discretion judges have in cases where there is a single fact-finder and no jury.
“There is without question in family law so much risk of all kinds of biases and systemic oppression,” Breger said. “I wouldn’t even know how to answer the person who said race doesn’t play a role in the juvenile justice system, because it is so apparent.”
‘End that cycle’
At Friday’s rally, a bit before his sister told her story, Figuereo took hold of one of a handful of bullhorns floating among activists. Throughout the evening, a Black Shenendehowa graduate described being born to her mother, who was incarcerated at the time, and having just two days to bond before she was put into foster care; a white woman with mental health needs recalled being beaten by officers and removed from her medications while incarcerated. And Figuereo shared parts of his own story.
“We are out here to talk about all of the injustices we face,” he said, standing in front of a jail where he once spent the night. “We are not going to put up with it anymore.”
Figuereo does not mince words or conform to what some of the activists derisively refer to as “respectability politics.” He has called for the Saratoga Springs Police Department, or independent agencies, to reopen the investigation into the death of 21-year-old Darryl Mount, a Saratoga man who died after fleeing police in 2013. After fleeing from the police, he ended up at the bottom of a tall construction scaffold with injuries that left him in a coma until he died about nine months after the chase. Records that have emerged in the case in the years since show that police misled the public and press about the extent to which the death was investigated; records later showed that former Police Chief Greg Veitch had told officers he supported them and within two days said he believed there was no misconduct. Veitch later admitted to misleading a local reporter that the death was being investigated internally even though it was not.
“The people who should be in the jail right now are SSPD officers,” Figuereo said, yelling into the bullhorn and directing his message pointedly at the officers on the nearby rooftop. “I’m not going to stop until this case is reopened… People in here are locked up for some minor drug charges, but the SSPD get away with murder, and we do not pay people to murder us.”
He also made a broader argument that the country’s entire criminal justice system works to destroy Black lives, a system he and his fellow activists said they plan to destroy.
“It’s a cycle and we are going to end that cycle,” he said. “It needs to end now.”