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Time for Change: Interview with Gladys Carrion
Interview by Johane Celestin and Catherine Cosmo
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New York’s juvenile prisons have been counted among the worst in the world by some juvenile justice advocacy groups. The practices used in these facilities came under special scrutiny in 2006, after an emotionally disturbed 15-year-old boy died following a physical struggle with staff in which they pinned him to the ground. Then, last year, the U.S. Department of Justice issued a shocking report that revealed terrible conditions in four of the state’s 28 juvenile prisons: Staff had broken kids’ bones and knocked out teeth while trying to restrain them. They also reported that there was little real care for teens with mental illnesses and drug addictions. And in December, a subsequent state report said these conditions were common across the entire system.

So, why are juvenile justice advocates feeling optimistic? One reason is Gladys Carrión. In 2007, Carrión was appointed to run the state’s Office of Children and Family Services, the agency in charge of all the juvenile detention centers in New York. (As commissioner of OCFS, Carrión also oversees the state’s child welfare services such as foster care, adoption, and child protective services.)

Carrión, a lawyer from the Bronx, is a reformer. She’s hopeful that all the bad publicity the system has gotten will spur the changes that she believes are urgently needed. We met her at the Bronx Residential Center, one of the few juvenile prisons inside city limits, where she explained how she wants to improve things.

YCteen: Why do you personally care about juvenile justice?

Gladys Carrión: I care about the young people very much. In part, I see myself in a lot of these young people. They come from the communities I grew up in. I see my nephew, my son, my neighbor’s children in these facilities and in the system.

YCteen: Some people say that kids who are in the habit of acting out should be removed from their schools and communities to keep them from being disruptive. What do you think about that?

Carrión: I disagree. If we’re going to incarcerate anyone and deprive anyone of their liberty, we need to think long and hard about doing that. My position is that you should only remove a young person from their community if they truly pose a danger. Unless they’re dangerous, we should find a way to address their behavioral or delinquency issues within the context of their community.

YCteen: Since you became commissioner in 2007, you’ve closed or merged 14 juvenile prisons in the state. Why?

Carrión: One, because we don’t need them. We have fewer young people coming into our facilities because counties are increasingly using alternatives to detention (alternative-to-detention programs usually attempt to rehabilitate kids without taking them out of their homes). Also, even if we had enough young people to fill our upstate facilities, I would still close them because they are too far from where the young people come from.

The majority of the young people entering the juvenile justice system are from New York City, but because most of the facilities are upstate, sometimes parents have to travel 5 or 6 hours just to visit their children. From that far away, it is very difficult to engage the community and family, to make those connections that young people and their families will need in order to make an effective transition back into the community.

We’re planning an initiative in Brooklyn where we can reuse and retrofit our Brooklyn residence. We’re working with Mark Steward, of the Missouri model, who is providing us with some technical assistance on how to redesign our facility and our program. (See our story on the Missouri model.)

YCteen: What other changes are being made to the state’s juvenile prisons?

image by YC-Art Dept

Carrión: There’s a philosophical shift from a correctional model that emphasizes punishment and control to a model that looks at addressing the needs of the young people and their families. So we’re changing the environment and the culture in our facilities.

We’re working really hard, and I think with lots of success, to reduce the number of physical restraints (like handcuffs), and to improve staff’s skills. We’re also engaging with families more, and we’re thinking about re-entry (kids going home) from day one, as soon as the young person comes in.

We’re looking at improving our education and vocational program. In some of our facilities, we’re training young people for jobs in the green economy. We’re doing therapeutic interventions that address some of the deep trauma many of our young people have experienced to help them understand why they’re acting a certain way and to help them set limits for their own behavior.

YCteen: Where would you like to see New York state’s juvenile justice system go from here?

Carrión: I would like to see less reliance on confinement (i.e. fewer kids being locked up). I’d like the system to rely more on alternatives to detention.

I’d like to see a system that allows young people to work with victims and become more sensitized to some of the harm that their behavior causes. It’s important for us to understand that young people have the capacity to change. Their brains are not fully developed yet. (See our story on teen brains on p. 9.) We need to understand adolescent development much better and take that into account. Most importantly, I think we need to listen to young people a lot more than we do now.

Also, an area I have absolutely no control over is police practices, but it’s an area I think we should look at. Why are so many people being detained?

YCteen: What are the biggest obstacles you face in reforming the system?

Carrión: There are a lot. In closing facilities, there’s been a real pushback in upstate communities where these facilities represent jobs for local people. But I always say that I am not the commissioner for full employment. I am the commissioner for children and families, so that’s my priority.

The other challenge is that people are scared of these kids. They think that they’re predators and that they need to be far away in order to ensure public safety. The facts do not show that. There has been no spike in juvenile crime because I’m closing facilities and we’re using more alternatives to detention.

In some counties, people working in the system are resistant to the idea of alternatives to detention. I had a conversation the other day with one court counsel—that’s like a prosecutor—who asked me what we should do with a teen who’s noncompliant, who does graffiti once, then twice, and three times, and six times. I asked a very simple question: “Is that young person dangerous?” His answer was no, so I said, “Well, you gotta find another way because jail is not the response.”

I cannot see incarcerating a young person, depriving them of their liberty, because they are doing graffiti. And I happen to not like graffiti at all, it gets me upset, but we need to find other approaches to address that young person’s fascination with graffiti. Maybe it’s art classes or something else, but not prison.

Editor’s Note: This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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(NYC-2010-05-16)