It’s been almost a year since that shocking surveillance video was released, by a former state Commission of Correction official, showing conditions at four juvenile prisons. The video depicted places dangerously out of control, with residents on multiple occasions throwing around furniture, refusing to follow staff orders and attacking other residents and staff. Scarier still, the aggressors knew they were being recorded, but didn’t care.
It appears little has changed since then, except for the number of assaults, which were up dramatically in 2012. The Commission of Correction reported 337 attacks — 226 against other inmates and 111 against staff — compared with 112 total violent incidents reported in 2011.
What’s going on? Why all the mayhem?
One reason is that today’s juvenile prisoners tend to be bigger, stronger, older (the age range is from 14 to 21) and more violent (many are there for murder, rape and armed robbery) than in the past. And many are emotionally disturbed.
At the same time, the state Office of Children and Family Services has been transitioning to what it calls a “therapeutic model.” This began after the 2006 death of a 15-year-old at Tryon Residential Facility for Boys in Fulton County who had been restrained by two adult staff members. The incident led to an investigation by the U.S. Justice Department, which found that staff at Tryon and three other juvenile prisons were inadequately trained and routinely used excessive force, resulting in broken bones and teeth.
The union responded that these were dangerous, violent kids, and staff members sometimes had to use physical force to protect other residents and themselves. But the Office of Children and Family Services placed new restrictions on staff, and extended new freedoms to kids, giving them the upper hand.
These secure facilities cost a lot — $200,000 per inmate — and aren’t very effective, at least in terms of rehabilitation. The recidivism rate is 80 percent. So we have no quarrel with the state’s policy of moving as many nonviolent offenders as possible out, and into community-based services closer to their homes (which, for most, is the New York City area).
But some juvenile prisons will continue to be needed for the dangerous, violent ones who pose a real threat to society. They are going to get out sooner or later, so it’s important that they get the mental health and other counseling they need (and are not getting now).
The question is, how do you control them while you’re trying to rehabilitate them? Probably by doing some of the same things that are done in the state’s adult prisons, which do not have these problems, such as separation and even isolation in extreme cases.
Order must come first, or therapy cannot work. Beyond that practical consideration is a more basic, human one: No adult should have to work in an environment like this; no kid, regardless of what he did, should have to live in it.