The Legal Aid Society Policy Recommendations for Youth in DOC custody

The Legal Aid Society urges the removal of 16 and 17 year old young men and women from Rikers Island and other City adult jails. Alternatives to detention, alternatives to incarceration and pre-trial community supervision for our youth should be utilized in all but the rarest of circumstances. However, if pretrial detention or jail as a sentence is the only option, in light of the NY Sentencing Commission recommendation that "No youth shall be detained in any prison, jail lockup, or other place used for adults convicted of crime or under arrest..."  our youth must be in a safe, well-maintained facility which provides ample space for: 

  • separate housing for youth with special needs
  • classrooms conducive to learning,
  • private treatment areas for medical and mental health care,
  • space for additional agency contact,
  • programming space,
  • large indoor and outdoor recreation areas for congregate activity, and
  • housing areas with individual rooms.

When youth reach the age of 18 they should not be automatically transferred to an adult jail but should remain in the facility in a separate housing area.

Treatment, Services, and Agency Integration

  • Incarcerated youth must be provided with appropriate treatment, programming and education in a safe environment. The City should increase social services to incarcerated youth, to reduce idle time, build skills, assist with educational needs and facilitate their re-entry to society upon release.
  • All incarcerated youth must be permitted to consistently attend school in a safe environment, appropriate for learning regardless of classification or housing unit.
  • A program such as “Think Trauma,” a program from the National Child Traumatic Stress Network that is in use in the juvenile secure facilities in NYC is essential for this population.
  • Over 40% of the youth incarcerated at Rikers Island are diagnosed with mental illness. We must improve the quality of identification and care available to mentally ill prisoners. The Department of Health and Mental Hygiene should provide liaisons to facilitate assessment and treatment of youth with mental illness.
  • Special Needs Wards: Separate housing for youth with a history of risk to themselves or others could provide needed additional therapeutic support, programs, and services to help address the underlying psychological roots of their behavior.

Immediately End the Use of Punitive Segregation and Implement a Fair Disciplinary System

  • DOC has announced the intent to end the use of punitive segregation for 16 and 17 year olds in its custody by the end of the year. There is no reason to wait. The harm that punitive segregation causes for our youth should be ended now.
  • There is voluminous evidence that adolescent brain development continues through age 25. The prohibition of the use of isolated confinement on young adults in NYC DOC must include more than the 16 and 17 year olds in our care.
  • New York State already manages youth as old as 21 in its secure juvenile facilities with a room confinement model using confinement for a limited duration based on recommended standards in use in the Division of Youth and Family Justice (“DYFJ”)and the Office of Children and Family Services (“OCFS”). This model can serve as a means of last resort to prevent a youth from harming him/herself or others.
  • We support the recommendations of the DOJ Findings Letter which call on NYC DOC to “[d]evelop and implement an adequate continuum of alternative disciplinary sanctions for rule violations that do not involve lengthy isolation, as well as systems to reward and incentivize good behavior,” and which also call for the prohibition of the use of isolation on prisoners with mental illness. DOJ Findings Letter at 62.

Training and Staff Accountability

  • Video cameras that provide coverage in all areas of the facility (including intake areas, receiving room pens, clinics, recreation areas, dayrooms, program areas and classrooms) should be installed. The DOJ investigation made clear the need for video coverage in order to provide for safety and to end the culture of violence that included DOC staff intentionally moving adolescents to areas with no cameras to inflict harm and use excessive force. DOJ Findings Letter at 52.
  • Cameras must have recording capability and tapes must be preserved for at least 90 days in order to facilitate investigations, oversight, and holding staff accountable for reported and unreported (allegations) of use of force and other incidents. Tapes which record incidents (e.g. fights, use of force, staff misconduct such as officers off-post) must be preserved for at least three years.
  • Municipal and DOC leadership must hold staff members accountable for their misconduct through competent investigations of incidents and meaningful discipline including termination from employment. See, e.g. DOJ Findings Letter at 61.
  • Staff hired and assigned to work with youth must have training specific to the population, and must demonstrate the ability and knowledge needed to work with this population in a professional manner. DOC training for staff should include training from other City agencies knowledgeable about adolescent development, mental health and educational needs of youth (e.g. ACS, DOE, DYFJ, OCFS).
  • Over 40% of the youth incarcerated at Rikers Island are diagnosed with mental illness. Staff training must include understanding, identifying and working with individuals with mental illness.
  • Staffing and promotion decisions must include a review of staff members’ use of force history. DOC must maintain a system that captures data about violence and injuries to assist in holding staff accountable for misconduct and for utilization in staffing and promotion decisions. Maintain an appropriate staffing ratio such as the staff to adolescent ratio of 1:8 that exists in the secure juvenile detention facilities in NYC.