CA Campaign Helps Close Juvenile Prisons
In February, shortly after New York’s Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS) announced its plan to close six juvenile facilities, the CA’s Juvenile Justice Project (JJP) launched a strategic campaign to educate the public about the closures and urge policymakers to support the agency’s plan. Correctly predicting backlash from upstate legislators who wanted to keep the facilities open for the jobs they provided in their districts, the CA sought to prevent the Legislature from restoring funding for the prisons in the state budget.
JJP’s “Empty Beds, Wasted Dollars” campaign, funded by the JEHT Foundation, focused on the plan’s good fiscal sense: the facilities are either mostly or completely empty, and each empty bed costs the state $140,000 to $200,000 per year. OCFS forecasted $16 million in annual savings to taxpayers. With state revenue shortfalls looming, the financial argument for closing the prisons was persuasive. JJP was successful in garnering media attention statewide, including editorials in the New York Times and Albany Times Union questioning the logic of keeping underutilized facilities open at the expense of taxpayers when more effective—and less costly—alternatives are available.
But it was never just about the money the State would save. The closures are part of a broader paradigm shift in the agency’s outlook on juvenile justice. OCFS Commissioner Gladys Carrión explained: “Instead of continuing to pour money into this broken system and confining these children to facilities hundreds of miles from their homes, OCFS has aggressively been moving toward more community based alternatives to incarceration where these children can maintain and strengthen connections with their families and the significant adults in their lives.”
The analysis that the juvenile justice system is in need of overhauling, and that investing in community alternatives is the first step, echoes reforms for which the Correctional Association and others have long advocated. A year and a half ago, before new leadership at the agency, few would have expected OFCS to take such a stance. Despite soaring recidivism rates and its disproportionate confinement of youth of color, the old OCFS was loath to acknowledge the need for change. Its administrators certainly had little interest in hearing from reform-minded groups like the CA.
But by January, OCFS’ announcement came as no surprise to the CA, which over the past year has been working closely with agency officials on a range of important juvenile justice reform issues. As the CA’s legislative mandate to monitor and report on state prisons does not extend to juvenile prisons, this degree of cooperation provides access to what has essentially been a closed system. Shutting down underutilized facilities was an important step in the agency’s ambitious redesign, and the CA fully supported the plan.
A few days before the state budget deadline, the CA brought over 50 young people and other advocates to Albany to speak directly with policymakers about the issue. During the subsequent budget negotiations, the closures became a bargaining chip between the Assembly and Senate, and after much wrangling, Governor Paterson and the Legislature restored funding for two of the facilities. While the CA strongly supported closing all six facilities, the closure of four is nevertheless an advance for advocates, for youth involved in the juvenile justice system, and for an agency attempting to remake itself.
The budget battle now over, the CA will turn to supporting the agency’s pledge to reinvest funds in community-based alternative to incarceration programs. With Carrión and OCFS still committed to improving outcomes for troubled youth and willing to collaborate with advocates, there is good reason to remain optimistic.
The series, which has earned praise for its evenhandedness and authenticity, takes viewers through a dramatic retelling of the two men’s elaborate plot, the escape, and the ensuing manhunt. But it ignores one of the most serious consequences of the break: the widespread retaliation carried out against the people left behind in Clinton and other New York prisons.Read More
Staten Islanders had the opportunity Thursday night to briefly experience one of the hardest parts of our nation’s penal system. A group of advocates brought a makeshift solitary cell to the South Shore YMCA in Eltingville to show people the level of isolation inmates can face. The model was constructed by Doug Van Zandt, of [...]Read More
Reports & Research
“Solitary at Southport: A 2017 Report Based Upon the Correctional Association’s Visits, Data Analysis, & First-Hand Accounts of the Torture of Solitary Confinement from One of New York’s Supermax Prisons”
“The isolation itself is torture. Mentally and emotionally, it breaks you down. Spiritually it strips you. The way it is built is to break you down as a person and push your family away.” From “Solitary at Southport” Solitary confinement is torture. New York State subjects people to solitary confinement and other forms of isolation [...]Read More
Prison Monitoring Reports
Attica Correctional Facility, a 2,000-bed maximum security prison in western New York, continues to operate as a symbolic and real epicenter of state violence and abuse of incarcerated persons in the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) state prison system 43 years after the 1971 prison uprising and violent suppression by state authorities. The [...]Read More