“A Penal Colony for Kids”
That’s how New York Magazine‘s Jennifer Gonnerman describes the Tryon Residential Center in her lengthy article this week on the upstate New York juvenile prison. [h/t: my favorite East Villager, Casey Degen.] Apart from being the place where a young Mike Tyson learned to box, Tryon doesn’t have a great track record: in recent years, kids have suffered concussions, broken bones, and even — in the case of 15-year-old Darryl Thompson of the Bronx — accidental death at the hands of staff there. (Thompson’s death was medically ruled a homicide, but the grand jury declined to indict.) The DOJ threatened to step in if conditions didn’t improve, Governor Paterson’s started a task force, and last week Mayor Bloomberg announced plans to restructure New York City’s juvenile justice system so as to incarcerate fewer teenage offenders.
From a one-time height of over 300 boys, the center currently houses just 46 boys, as young as 12, half with diagnosed mental illnesses, most black, many with histories of abuse and stints in the foster care system, and most hailing from Brooklyn and the Bronx. It’s sort of like a twisted version of the Fresh Air Fund:
To the kids from New York City, Tryon feels like Siberia. “It’s like being in outer space,” says a teenager from Linden Boulevard. The sun disappears by mid-afternoon, and the snow never seems to stop. To get from their cottage to the school building, the boys pull on hats, gloves, and boots, then walk a quarter-mile through howling wind. From their bedrooms, they can hear guns firing—not the sound of a drive-by but of deer hunters. The kids talk to their families on the telephone, but many of them never get a visit. It’s difficult to get here without a car, and the trip by train and cab from New York City can run close to $200 round trip, an impossibly steep price for most parents.
Especially troubling is Gonnerman’s description of the mental health care services — or lack thereof — available to the boys incarcerated at Tryon:
[T]here are no psychiatrists here—or at any of the state’s juvenile prisons. (A psychiatrist working on contract visits once every two weeks.) It’s easy to pick out which kids have the most severe psychiatric problems: They’re the ones with Velcro on their sneakers instead of laces. Most have spent time in psychiatric hospitals in the past; their diagnoses include schizophrenia and personality disorders. These boys are assigned to a housing unit specifically for mentally ill kids, where they receive more-intensive services, but at this point there are so many mentally ill kids here that the mental-health unit can’t possibly accommodate them all.
Also troubling? Tryon’s educational programs aren’t accredited (unlike, Gonnerman notes, the high school program at the Rikers Island jail in NYC). All in all this is a bleak portrait of a failing institution (89% of boys released from a NY juvenile prison will re-offend), and I’d highly recommend that readers turn to the full article. The Tryon facility is scheduled for closure in January 2011, but of course, as Gonnerman puts it, “closing the prisons won’t make the problem of troubled youth go away.”
Incidentally, readers may also be interested in Jennifer Gonnerman’s book Life on the Outside (2004), which chronicles a New York woman’s efforts to re-join society after spending 16 years in prison under the Rockefeller drug laws for a first-time sale of cocaine.