Cindy Rodriguez is the Urban Policy reporter for New York Public Radio.
Reforms are coming to four seriously troubled upstate youth detention facilities. A settlement has been reached between the Department of Justice and the state agency that is overseeing the facilities, which is calling for strict new rules limiting the use of physical restraints and requiring greater mental health services for emotionally disturbed youth.
WNYC's Cindy Rodriguez has been following the story and discusses the history of the case with Richard Hake.
Why did the Department of Justice begin investigating these facilities?
The case started in 2007 after a series of incidents, including the death of a 15-year-old boy who was improperly pinned down on the ground by guards. After that, the Department of Justice (DOJ) visited the facilities, took experts in with them, and found some serious problems. Kids were being violently restrained for everything from slamming doors to speaking loudly to starting fist fights. Those that were emotionally disturbed were treated the worst because staff wasn't properly trained to deal with serious mental health problems. So they were resorting to excessive force to control these kids. On top of that, mental health experts were in short supply. Kids weren't given the proper diagnoses or medications, and, in general, the report painted a picture of out-of-control facilities where youth were being abused and mistreated.
What does this settlement do to correct these problems?
It requires the state to hire more staff, including psychiatrists, mental health specialists and counselors. It also requires that substance abuse is addressed, and that medication is properly administered. To address excessive force, the agreement prohibits staff from using choke holds, and the dangerous practice of tripping kids while their hands are held behind their back causing them to fall on their face and injure themselves. And it limits the use of restraints to situations where everything else has failed, and the youth is in danger of hurting himself. It also requires that allegations of excessive force be thoroughly investigated.
We're talking about 13, 14, 15-year-old kids?
Teenagers yes, but the ages vary.
How big are these facilities and who gets sent to them?
At the time the DOJ first went into these facilities, they were holding just over 300 kids. Typically, the kids sent to facilities are disproportionately from poor neighborhoods in New York City. Many of them are victims of abuse and neglect by parents and other caretakers, and they are sent for a variety of reasons, from minor things like graffiti and shoplifting to more serious offenses like assault and rape.
This settlement covers four youth detention centers. But in all, New York state oversees 26 facilities. Are they as troubled as well and what will happen at those detention centers?
The governor set up a task force to look at all of the facilities and found systemwide problems. It was headed by the president of John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and it recommended that several facilities be closed, and that kids be treated closer to their homes with alternative to incarceration programs that would both monitor youth, and provide mental health services and counseling for them and their families. And the state Office of Children and Family Services has been trying to close more facilities down and change those that will remain open to a more therapeutic approach. But there's been resistance, and the union that represents guards has complained that these youth are violent and dangerous to the staff, and to the communities they may return home to. Advocates in New York City often accuse the union of wanting the facilities to stay open to save jobs.
A lot of the youth are from New York City. Are these centers near New York City, or are they far upstate like some of the prisons are?
They're far upstate.
Read the full complaint here:
Read the motion and settlement here: