New York –somewhere below Kenya, Guatemala, Brazil and Bulgaria

…in transparency, when it comes to juvenile prisons.

Mie Lewis gives an account of her struggle to obtain information on girls in juvenile prisons that reads like something from the undemocratic world:

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.

This week, the Department of Justice released a scathing report on inhumane conditions in juvenile prisons in upstate New York. What the New York Times describes in its article on the report is inexcusable:

Excessive physical force was routinely used to discipline children at several juvenile prisons in New York, resulting in broken bones, shattered teeth, concussions and dozens of other serious injuries over a period of less than two years, a federal investigation has found.

Lewis continues:

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.

According to the DoJ report, a federal takeover of New York State’s juvenile prisons is being considered. It says a great deal about the New York State Government that its incarcerated children were forced to endure so much, for so long, while officials actively sought to prevent human rights advocates like Lewis from uncovering abuses.

America leading by example, yet again.

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One thought on “New York –somewhere below Kenya, Guatemala, Brazil and Bulgaria

  1. This is very interesting, my mom used to teach in one of the kid prisons and still does in the summer. (None of the places in the article.) New York actually has one of the best state prison systems in terms of prisoner safety, stuff to do, minimizing gang activity, etc. (If you think NY is bad, look at places like California or Florida etc.) Most of this is the result of Attica — New York has had major improvements over time, and Spitzer/Paterson’s new prison officials are considered quite good.

    PROBLEM is this: Attica showed the state what adults can do when they get angry and organized. And most of the reforms in terms of spending on programs, improving oversight, were targeted at the adult-level stuff. (Squeaky wheel gets the grease.) So the funding cuts tend to be targeted more at the kids, who have less of a say, which is totally counterproductive because obviously you have to get at the kids if you want to reduce long-term recidivism. This is something the staff at the juvie prisons points out a lot — should you spend (x) amount of money on programs for a 45-year-old lifer in for rape-homicide when you can spend it on a 16-yr old who stole a car? (Obviously this is a rhetorical example, but the point stands — the adults are the ones making noise, spending their days in the prison Law Library, banging on about mistreatment, so they’re the ones getting the attention and dollaz; even when it would be better directed at the youths…)

    Another problem is, as the article notes, juvie prisons are OCFS, not DoC. DoC at least you can always raise money through tough-on-crime rhetoric, building new stuff to stimulate the upstate economy, etc. It’s not that this is all good policy, but at least DoC tends to be this stand-alone, decently-funded program…whereas OCFS handles foster care, adoption, child abuse cases, monitoring child care, the State Commission for the Blind and Visually Handicapped (!?), all sorts of stuff that really has nothing to do with the actual prison system. I’m not sure if this is standard, if other states are run like this too or not, maybe someone can clarify it?

    Anyway, this is rambling and disorganized, but some things to consider.

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