Two Former Residents of Detention Center Tell of Abuse and Humiliation
MONDAY, AUGUST 31, 2009
Tamara Steckler (right) , Attorney-in-Charge of the Juvenile Rights Practice, speaks with two former residents of an upstate detention facility that is the subject of a Justice Department investigation. With them is Christine Bella, a staff attorney in the Juvenile Rights Special Litigation Unit, who is part of a legal team planning a law suit.

Two former residents of Tryon Residential Center in upstate New York spoke of the abuse and humiliation they endured at the hands of staff in the facility. Tamara Steckler, Attorney-in-Charge of the Juvenile Rights Practice at The Legal Aid Society, said the Society is planning a lawsuit against the State. She told The New York Times that she admired the changes the state’s Office of Children and Family Services has made over the past 18 months, including more protective rules about restraints and more ombudsmen to field complaints and make unannounced visits. “But they’re really going to have to dig deep to start over,” she said. “The culture is so entrenched.”

New York has created a juvenile justice system in which primarily low-income children of color are arrested and prosecuted often to the fullest extent in Family Court, and then placed in the custody of the State Office of Children’s and Family Services (OCFS). By law, such OCFS placements are to be rehabilitative rather than punitive. Instead, once sent to an OCFS facility these children often find themselves far from their families, in shackles and behind barbed-wire for months or even years, without appropriate care or services. Now, following an 18 month investigation into the conditions of confinement at OCFS facilities, (Report Cites to Abuse at State Juvenile Detention Centers NYT August 25, 2009).the Department of Justice has determined that the conditions at such facilities "violate constitutional standards" by failing to protect children from harm and failing to provide adequate, quality mental health services to children, among other things. Ms. Steckler went on to say that we must attend to the educational, substance abuse and mental health needs of many of our young people while they reside in our communities to remedy the triggers for negative behavior, which should be addressed through supportive families and communities and not incarceration. Treating these children humanely should not be a discussion but a mandate. Read the Big City column in The New York Times and the New York Times editorial.

The New York Times
August 29, 2009
Big City
Girls in Trouble, Humiliated and Injured at the Hands of the State
By SUSAN DOMINUS

There were cameras all over the Tryon Residential Center in upstate New York for girls who are juvenile offenders, but everyone seemed to think that a lot of them did not work. That could explain how a 14-year-old who did not move fast enough for one staff member’s satisfaction ended up pinned beneath him — all 300 pounds or so.

“I told him two times, ‘I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe,’ ” recalled the young woman, now a reed-thin 16-year-old with long curly hair who is about to start her sophomore year at a Manhattan high school. It was only when a female co-worker warned the staff member that he was violating the rules — that too much of his body was covering the girl — that he hauled himself off, the young woman said. By then, her bones and back ached, and she had the tell-tale red welts of rug burn across the side of her face that was rubbing against the floor.

Even if his body had only partially covered hers, the counselor was violating more basic rules — like the ones in the Constitution that courts have decreed give youths in the custody of the state the right to be free from physical abuse at its hands.

Physical force, like the restraints applied to that 14-year-old girl, are only supposed to be used when a youth is trying to escape, or posing danger to herself or others, according to protective guidelines issued by New York State in February 2007.

But at Tryon, according to a Department of Justice report issued this week, physical restraints were a routine part of the day, a bit of brutal violence hovering in wait at all times. Restraints were administered to young women for talking back or mumbling under their breath. Generally, an employee grabbed a young woman from behind, under her arms, and pushed her to the ground, having kicked her feet out beneath her.

The staffs at four youth prisons upstate defaulted too frequently to violence, the report concluded, a finding that was echoed in interviews with former residents. The young woman who was briefly crushed beneath the staff member said that that culture meant humiliation, anxiety and bruising pain. For other teenagers at the centers, the report said, it meant concussions, broken or knocked-out teeth and “spiral fractures” — bone breaks caused by twisting.

It’s self-restraint, not physical restraint, that adults are supposed to exercise around children, even children who get themselves into trouble, as that young woman initially had, by striking a stranger on the street. Instead, the people in charge at these juvenile prisons abused their power, and in doing so, could only leave their wards with the impression that even the authorities think that violence is a natural, appropriate response to conflict.

Another former resident at Tryon, now 18 and starting her senior year in high school, recalled a counselor trying to restrain her because she pushed a piece of paper defiantly across a table. When she resisted, the counselor called for help, which meant that four employees pinned her to the ground, leaving her with bruises on her wrists and burst blood vessels near her eyes. The restraints were so common, she said, that she developed a coping mechanism. “My mind goes blank,” she said. “I don’t feel the pain — because it’s painful, it burns — but you hold it in and you take it.” If you hollered or cried, she said, the employee might turn on his walkie-talkie, not to ask for help but for the sheer amusement of another staff member somewhere else on the unit.

In addition to the Justice Department report, which raises the prospect of federal intervention, the Legal Aid Society of New York is preparing a lawsuit against the state. Tamara Steckler, the society’s lawyer in charge of juvenile rights, said she admired the changes the state’s Office of Children and Family Services has made over the past 18 months, including more protective rules about restraints and more ombudsmen to field complaints and make unannounced visits. “But they’re really going to have to dig deep to start over,” she said. “The culture is so entrenched.”

The young woman who had the gall to push a piece of paper across a table said the residents at Tryon rarely complained about the restraints, which were so common that she and others assumed they were condoned by pretty much everyone.

“I came in paranoid,” said the young woman who had been pinned to the ground, “and I left more paranoid.”