7 Key Questions as New York Moves Teenagers Out of Rikers
In the shadow of an elevated train line in the South Bronx, a short brick building partially topped with barbed wire is being fortified. Porcelain toilets have been replaced with steel ones so they cannot be broken and used as weapons. Cell doors are now heavier and swing out, to prevent the doors from being blocked by those inside.
For years, New York City has housed some of its youngest offenders here at the Horizon Juvenile Center. But they have moved out, and older teenagersbeing held in jails on Rikers Island will soon move in, ensuring compliance with a 2017 state law that ended the practice of detaining teenagers under 18 in adult jails.
But as with many sweeping policy changes, the transition has been bumpy.
Why are the teenagers being moved?
New York State’s “Raise the Age” law requires adolescents be housed in detention centers — not adult jails — where they can receive age-appropriate services. In the city, 16- and 17-year-old detainees will be moved from Rikers Island by Oct. 1. In 2017, New York and North Carolina were the last two states to stop automatically prosecuting adolescents as adults.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed the measure in April 2017 alongside the Rev. Al Sharpton and Akeem Browder, the brother of Kalief Browder, whose 2015 suicide highlighted the danger of holding adolescents in adult jails. Supporters praised the move for protecting young defendants in New York, which has lagged in juvenile justice reform.
How many teenagers will be moved?
In August, 79 boys and five girls who were 16 or 17 were being held at Rikers, according to the city’s Department of Correction.
Last year, that age group accounted for 5 percent of the assaults on uniformed staff and the majority were facing felony charges, like robbery. Six were charged with murder.
David Hansell, the commissioner of the Administration for Children’s Services, said the city should use a more advanced analysis to separate teenage detainees, rather than detention at Rikers. He said the future focus is on positive youth development.
City officials also asked that a state-run residential youth center assess the teenagers at Rikers before they are moved to New Horizon. The state denied the request
What is the difference between a detention center and a jail?
Traditionally, detention centers have offered a more nurturing environment, and are generally less restrictive than jails.
Horizon is expected to be similar to the Crossroads Juvenile Center in Brooklyn, where the city has moved all juveniles who have not been charged as adults and will now place younger adolescents there.
Over the summer, detainees at Crossroads gathered weekly for Harambee — a series of motivational chants and songs. The outdoor recreation area includes a courtyard and basketball courts. The teenagers also raised chickens and grew vegetables. At Horizon, a program matching the teenagers with mentors is to begin Nov. 1.
The Administration for Children’s Services and the Department of Correction will jointly manage the Bronx facility.
What training is the staff receiving?
City Council members, youth advocates and union leaders representing correction officers and social workers have said the city has not provided enough training in its rush to meet the deadline.
City officials pushed back.
“With the timeline we have, we are trying to move mountains,” said Dana Kaplan, deputy director of the mayor’s office of criminal justice.
The city has been in court battling unions that represent correction officers, captains and wardens and argue that working at the new facility would be “out-of-title work,” or outside the scope of their duties.
“Would you send a police officer into a burning fire? No, you won’t. You’d send a firefighter. Would you send a firefighter to fight crime? No, you won’t. So why in the hell do you want to send this uniform into Horizon, some place that’s made for juveniles and adolescents, and try to turn us into something that we’re not?” said Elias Husamudeen, president of the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association.
The city also created a new position called youth development specialist and as part of its training. The child welfare agency solicited help from Missouri, where the state’s juvenile corrections agency moved from large correctional facilities to smaller, localized ones in 1974, creating what is known as the Missouri Model.
During a six-week training session in July, an instructor asked a group of recent hires how they would respond if a resident misbehaved or was caught with a weapon and their thoughts on isolation. According to a draft of policies for Horizon, the staff will be able to confine teenagers to their room if they are deemed a danger to themselves or others, but only as a last resort.
How will the teenagers transition into the new facility?
The Board of Correction will send staff to Horizon to monitor the transition. But officials say they are still struggling with the best way to integrate teenagers who have been hardened by their time at Rikers Island.
The state prohibits former Rikers detainees from mingling with teenagers who were not held there. The city has asked the state to waive that order.
Who will work at Horizon?
The plan calls for 300 correction officers with at least two years of experience working with young adults to staff the Bronx facility. Ninety officers have volunteered, according to the Correction Department. The remainder will probably be assigned.
The department said 147 correction officers currently work with the 16- and 17-year-olds at Rikers.
“The biggest challenge is not to transport the culture of Rikers Island to the facility,” said JoAnne Page, the president of the Fortune Society, which helps former inmates transition back into society.
Correction officers will remain at Horizon for up to two years, when the teenagers who have been at Rikers Island would have aged out of the juvenile centers, the city said. Then the child welfare agency is expected to take a more active role.
Is there crime in the detention centers?
Yes. In fact, a Horizon worker is the subject of an investigation after two lawsuits were filed by teenagers who said they received special privileges from staff members in exchange for sex. The teenagers described being lured by alcohol, often smuggled in Arizona Iced Tea bottles brought in by the workers.
The child welfare agency revised its policies this year. The rules prohibit contraband, forbid staff members from being alone with detainees and encourage the youths to report abuse, according to the agency.
“You can move them into Trump Plaza or the Plaza Hotel, if you have guards who worked at Horizon and are still working there, there’s no stopping the kinds of things that happen at Rikers,” said Vik Pawar, a lawyer who represents teenagers in the lawsuits.