The youth-written stories in Represent give inspiration and information to teens in foster care while offering staff insight into those teens’ struggles.

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Scenes From Teen Lockup
Catherine Cosmo
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As part of our reporting on juvenile justice, YCteen writers spent a lot of time talking about juvenile prisons. Now we wanted to see one. The agency that runs all the juvenile detention facilities in the state agreed to let us tour the Bronx Residential Center.

I expected an ugly brick building with barbed wire around it. But nestled in a bustling, green neighborhood, this facility turned out to be very attractive. The building was originally built as a convent for St. Ann’s church, and it still looked very much like a convent. Outside, there was a beautiful arched doorway and cherry trees were in bloom; inside there were gleaming wood floors and a colorful mural painted by the residents.

image by YC-Art Dept
image by YC-Art Dept
image by YC-Art Dept
image by YC-Art Dept
image by YC-Art Dept
image by YC-Art Dept
image by YC-Art Dept
image by YC-Art Dept

Upon arrival, we were introduced to the facility’s director and assistant director, and the regional coordinator for this and several other facilities. They were surprisingly polite, warm, and friendly; we received eager smiles and genuine welcomes. We learned that the facility houses about 20 boys from the ages of 14 to 17, each of whom stays for about 90 to 140 days.

Rules and a Schedule

This specific facility, they admitted, was one of the nicest ones. It accepts only certain boys who have slipped up after being sent home from other juvenile facilities upstate. The boys were sent here because they disobeyed their “conditions of release,” which are sets of rules they agreed to before going home the first time. These rules usually involve things like going to school every day, obeying their parents, and meeting regularly with a case manager.

The boys have a 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. schedule seven days a week. They attend school, do homework and chores, have meals, receive guidance from counselors, and spend some time playing ping-pong or pool or working out. They’re allowed to have visitors on Sundays.

All the boys have their own small room, complete with a bed, a desk, a mirror, a bulletin board, and a clothes hamper. They’re monitored and supervised by staff at all times and must comply with a set of rules. If they do well, they get privileges, like the chance to work in the kitchen’s culinary program for a stipend.

Nurtured but Not Free

The effects of a caring approach were visible in the faces of the boys I met when we visited an art class. Their laughs and smiles were intoxicating as they read poetry they’d written and told us about a documentary they were creating. Instead of feeling bad for them, I was happy that they are getting care and help in such a positive environment.

As we continued our tour of the building, I couldn’t help but notice the intricate ceiling designs and the abundance of natural light flowing in through the windows. The building didn’t feel like a place to punish people. It felt like a place to nurture and rehabilitate troubled boys. And that’s exactly what the center is trying to be—a sanctuary.

Before we left, Gladys Carrión, the commissioner of the agency that runs the state’s juvenile prisons, spoke with us about the “sanctuary model” that her agency is introducing into some facilities like this one. In the sanctuary model, mental health professionals help teens work through whatever trauma they’ve experienced.

It all sounded pretty good. Even though the boys had to wear drab beige jumpsuits and couldn’t hang out with their friends, I thought, “Hey, jail’s not so bad.” However, as we headed out, we had to be buzzed through two automatically locking doors. As the last door heavily closed behind us, I felt grateful that I was free to go home.

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(NYC-2010-05-14)