Author opposes converting local prison to youth facility

Adirondack Correctional Facility in Ray Brook is seen in April 2016 from Haystack Mountain. It was originally built as a state tuberculosis hospital. (Enterprise photo — Peter Crowley)

RAY BROOK — Author Alexandra Cox will speak on Sunday against a state plan to convert Adirondack Correctional Facility to incarcerate 16 and 17-year-olds.

She will present her new book, “Trapped in a Vice” about the juvenile criminal justice system at 4:30 p.m. at the Cabin Grill at Hotel North Woods, 2520 Main St., Lake Placid.

Cox teaches criminology at Essex University in England and has spent much of her career as a social worker involved in the criminal justice system, working with incarcerated youth. She recently wrote a Guest Commentary for the Enterprise opposing the conversion of the state prison at Ray Brook to a detention facility for youth.

She wrote, “I’m coming to speak about my research about the negative consequences of juvenile imprisonment at the doorstep of two proposed juvenile prisons — the Adirondack Correctional Facility and the Groveland Annex.”

Raise the Age

This year New York state, which previously prosecuted 16 and 17-year-olds as adults, passed Raise the Age, a law requiring that offenders under the age of 18 be tried as juveniles and housed in appropriate youth facilities. This shifted their supervision from the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision to the Office of Family and Children Services. Rather than being removed from the facility upon their 18th birthday, the law now provides they remain for two years of treatment.

Currently, 16 or 17-year-olds convicted of felonies who receive determinate sentences of one year or more go to state prisons. As an interim measure, these youth are being housed at Hudson and Coxsackie correctional facilities. Cox worked at the Hudson facility for three years prior to writing her dissertation and said many of her concerns stem from her experience there.

The facility at Ray Brook is planned to house 142 youth inmates, although there are only 22 juvenile offenders from the North Country currently considered to need that level of supervision. Cox said most of the inmates will come from downstate.

System causes recidivism

In “Trapped in a Vice,” Cox describes the “vice” of juvenile incarceration as a system that simultaneously pulls youth in and pushes them out. Since the first New York prison for youth was built in 1902, the touted mission of youth facilities has been to reform the youths’ character, providing a structure that would “raise them up in the way they should go” so that, when released, they would not depart from it. (Proverbs 22:6) Although that mission has been recast and recharacterized numerous times, Cox reports that it has been, overall, a failure.

Rather than learning to hoe potatoes outdoors, incarcerated youth now learn to raise hydroponic plants, but the supports they need to fulfill those visions of reform are not supplied. Cox writes that a majority of the kids in juvenile detention facilities or adult prisons have mental illnesses.

“A lot of the kids are on [psychiatric] medications,” said Cox. “In 2008, when I first went into the facilities, there was one [youth] psychiatrist for the entire state.”

Cox said incarcerated youth receive medication for mental illness, but little or no therapy. Severely mentally ill youth often end up in prison because there is no other place for them.

“A lot of Offices of Mental Health have reduced their mental health facilities. They tend to reject kids with open court cases, so those kids end up with the [juvenile detention facilities] of OCFS.

“The big question is, where is this number [142] coming from? Why are so many beds and staff necessary?” asked Cox.

“There’s not a lot of advantages to the region in having this facility up here. Generally speaking, the judges up here are willing to bump youthful offenders down to Family Court,” said Cox.

Critics of the current system claim that youth incarceration not only does not reform the youth but guarantees that they will return — either to youth facilities, or to prison. Cox writes, “It is clear that our current system of punishment does not work; many, many young people — as high as 90 percent in New York — enter the adult system after spending time inside of a juvenile prison. Involvement in the juvenile justice system actually harms individuals more than it helps them.”

Retraining prison guards

OCFS oversees the juvenile detention facilities in the state. The new youth detention facility at Ray Brook will involve both OCFS personnel and DOCCS staff.

According to Monica Mahaffey, a spokesperson for OCFS, “OCFS and DOCCS have collaborated on a training model to prepare DOCCS staff to oversee a new category of placement — adolescent offenders — who will be placed for one year or more in DOCCS facilities under Raise the Age.”

Mahaffey writes, “OCFS will provide further training and consultation for DOCCS staff as needed. The model developed is a therapeutic model of care designed to address the issues that led to their placement and prevent them from re-offending. The two agencies will share an Associate Commissioner to develop new programs and consult between the two agencies. DOCCS employees will also provide educational services for youth in their population.”

Cox said that from her experience at the Hudson facility, this could lead to problems, as OCFS staff attempt to teach adult prison guards how to handle youth.

Cox said, “The purpose of Raise the Age was keeping youth out of adult prisons. But the state is unwilling to share the information of what that looks like.”

She writes that she interviewed many youth facility workers, who see their role as two-fold: both guiding and correcting the youth in their care. Youth facility workers see themselves as being on the front lines as far as knowing what works best with their charges — and see administration as out of touch. They say OCFS often implements top-down reforms that make little sense on the ground level.


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