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Reform in New York's Juvenile Justice System

Mie Lewis,
Women's Rights Project
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August 25, 2009

(Originally posted on Daily Kos.)

Yesterday, the Justice Department released a damning new report (PDF) about the horrible conditions in juvenile prisons in upstate New York. The story made the front page of the New York Times, and in a related op-ed called “New York’s Disgrace,” the Times writes:

This problem has been festering for decades. Elected officials who have ignored it will need to clean house as swiftly as possible, closing down the worst institutions and ensuring that children in custody are protected from abuse in compliance with federal law.

Unfortunately, the abuses that occurred in these prisons have been going on for years, despite having been exposed before.

Back in the winter of 2005, I was a novice researcher at Human Rights Watch, trying to find out what life was like for girls held in youth prisons in upstate New York. Getting information was almost impossible. The New York juvenile justice agency — called the Office of Children and Family Services, or OCFS — was one of the most secretive and defensive that Human Rights Watch had ever encountered, even compared with agencies in places like Bulgaria, Guatemala, Kenya, and Brazil.

Because OCFS refused to let human rights monitors into its facilities, we scraped together information from every place we could, tracking down girls who had recently been released, finding sources inside the agency and even lurking in prison parking lots in mid-winter to talk to the parents of incarcerated girls.

Months of work yielded the ACLU/Human Rights Watch joint report, Custody and Control. The report exposed severe abuse and neglect of all kinds at the Lansing Residential Center for girls in Tompkins County and the Tryon Residential Center for girls and boys in Fulton County. Girls were brutalized for transgressions as minor as talking back or not standing in line the right way. They were denied adequate schooling and services and kept in isolation. Their histories of victimization, their mental illnesses and their human rights were ignored.

We released Custody and Control in 2006. We pushed the Justice Department to investigate and we railed in the press. OCFS, for its part, owned up to some of the abuses, denied others, and promised to change.

Reading the DOJ’s report, which describes in gruesome detail many of the same abuses we exposed three years ago, I didn’t feel vindicated. Instead, I felt sick. So much is still so wrong, and in some ways it’s gotten even worse.

Girls are still brutally punished for hurting themselves or confessing they’ve considered suicide. They are brutalized for their mental illnesses. One severely mentally ill girl described in the DOJ report was held alone in a building — “abandoned” is the word DOJ used — in a room with her own urine and feces, because facility workers couldn’t or wouldn’t help her.

It was clear back in 2006 what needed to be done, and it is still clear now.

First, the Justice Department’s report shows us that these four youth prisons, at a minimum, are corrupt beyond repair. They should be closed. Now. More effective, cheaper and safer alternatives to incarceration have worked elsewhere, are working in New York, and need to be expanded.

Second, in the coming legislative session, the New York state senate must pass the bill, which has been introduced several times, creating an Office of the Child Advocate, separate from OCFS. The abuses in youth prisons thrive in darkness. An independent child advocate means transparency and accountability, which are the only way to keep these abuses from happening over and over.

There have been more than enough damning reports, broken bones, and abandoned children. We know where the problems lie, and how to solve them. It will take genuine political will and public pressure that goes on far longer than a news cycle to make sure that two years from now we don’t hear the same heartbreaking revelations again.

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