Jul 15, 2010

New York Reforms Youth Prisons

Federal Oversight for Troubled N.Y. Youth Prisons

Published: July 14, 2010
Four of New York's most dangerous and troubled youth prisons will be placed under federal oversight, strict new limits will be imposed on the use of physical force by guards, and dozens of psychiatrists, counselors and investigators will be hired under a sweeping settlement finalized on Wednesday between state and federal officials.

The settlement, filed in federal district court, will usher in the most significant expansion in years of mental health services for youths in custody, the vast majority of whom suffer from drug or alcohol problems, developmental disabilities, or other mental health problems.

Until now the state did not have a single full-time psychiatrist on staff to treat youthful offenders.Guards at the youth prisons, known as youth counselors, will be prohibited from using physical force to restrain youths except in cases in which a person's physical safety is threatened or a youth is seeking to escape from one of the facilities.

Guards will only be allowed to use the most controversial method of restraint - in which a youth is forced face-down to the ground - for a maximum of three minutes, with evaluation by a doctor to follow within four hours each time such a restraint is used.

The United States Department of Justice had threatened to take over New York's entire juvenile justice system unless the state took significant steps to rectify problems so severe that many youthful offenders never any services they were entitled to or that would help them adjust to life outside jail.

"It is New York's fundamental responsibility to protect juveniles in its custody from harm and to uphold their constitutional rights," Thomas E. Perez, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's civil rights division, said in a statement. "We have worked cooperatively with New York officials to craft an agreement to ensure that the constitutional rights of juveniles at the four facilities are protected, and we commend New York and the New York State Office of Children and Families for their willingness to work aggressively to remedy these problems."

The settlement comes almost a year after federal investigators found that staff at the four facilities - the Lansing Residential Center and the Louis Gossett Jr. Residential Center in Lansing, and two residences, one for boys and one for girls, at Tryon Residential Center in Johnstown - routinely used physical force to discipline children, resulting in broken bones, shattered teeth, concussions and dozens of other serious injuries over a period of less than two years.

"With this historic Settlement Agreement, New York takes another step towards achieving true transformation of our juvenile justice system," Governor David A. Paterson said in a statement.

Mr. Paterson, who has been trying to address the problems plaguing the juvenile justice system, introduced a bill in June that would allow judges to sentence youths to juvenile prisons only if they had been found guilty of a violent crime or a sex crime or were deemed to be a serious threat to themselves or others.

"I urge the Legislature to act on my juvenile justice reform bill, which seeks to provide appropriate oversight and accountability in the system and provides that only children who are truly a danger to their communities are placed" in juvenile jails, Mr. Paterson said.

The federal inquiry began in 2007 following a spate of incidents, including the 2006 death of an emotionally disturbed fifteen-year-old after two employees at the Tryon center pinned him down on the ground.

Two monitors, jointly chosen by federal and state officials, will oversee the state's efforts to enforce the new rules over the next two years, making regular progress reports to a federal judge, who must approve the settlement before it goes into effect. Money to pay for the new staff - including one full-time psychiatrist at each of the four prisons, five licensed psychologists, and more than a dozen social workers and nurse practitioners - was included in portions of the state budget approved by the Legislature in recent weeks. Currently, New York's entire youth prison system does not employ a single full-time staff psychiatrist.

The federal settlement echoes recommendations issued last December by a state task force, which found major problems throughout the state's entire youth prison system. The task force recommended substantially expanding mental health care and replacing most of the residential youth prisons with a system of smaller centers closer to the communities where most of the families of the youths in custody live.

While the federal settlement only formally applies to the four facilities in question, state officials said they hoped to use the agreement as a springboard to seek broader changes through the juvenile system, which currently houses roughly 667 youths in 26 facilities around the state. (Two facilities, including the boys' residential center at Tryon, are scheduled to close early next year.)

"It continues to move us in the right direction," said Gladys Carrión, the commissioner of the Office of Children and Family Services, the agency that oversees the juvenile justice system. "It's an affirmation of the work we have done already and of the recommendations of the governor's task force."

Ms. Carrión, who has moved aggressively in recent months to reduce the number of youths in state custody and limit the use of force by guards, said she would require all youth prisons in New York to abide by the new federal restrictions on physical restraint of youths. She said the state also planned to hire a chief psychiatrist to oversee drug regimens and mental health counseling at all of the state's youth prisons.