Why We Need to Stop Putting Teenagers Behind Bars

When Anjelique Wadlington was first arrested for the possession and sale of drugs, she was only 17. During the two years she spent at Riverhead Correctional Facility, she was locked down for 21 hours a day, crowded into the same dormitory as “adults, the mentally ill and the misbehaved.”

“Being a child and alone was terrifying,” she said. “You had to grow really fast or you would be left behind. The guards are rude and don’t see the mental state the child is in. To them, you are just an inmate.”

The conditions of Wadlington’s imprisonment speak to the profound problems endemic in our juvenile justice system. Teenagers imprisoned for even minor offenses face everything from overcrowded facilities to solitary confinement to an abundance of prisoner-on-prisoner and guard-on-prisoner violence. But in New York, at least, city and state officials are finally taking action toward reform.

* * * * *

In August, a damning report from the state attorney’s office found that juvenile detainees were subject to “excessive and unnecessary force” by Department of Corrections officers, their supervisors, and other inmates in juvenile detention facilities. Rikers Island, New York City’s main jail complex and one of the most notorious prisons in the country, was singled out as an epicenter of juvenile violence.

After the report was released, Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara released a statement calling the adolescent facilities at Rikers “a place where brute force is the first impulse rather than the last resort; where verbal insults are repaid with physical injuries; where beatings are routine while accountability is rare; and where a culture of violence endures even while a code of silence prevails.”

The report concluded that this culture of violence was so pervasive the facility couldn’t be reformed; instead it recommended relocating all of the juveniles currently held at the prison’s Robert N. Davoren Complex for adolescent inmates. Joseph Ponte, New York City’s correction commissioner, announced that he was looking into this alternative at an October City Council hearing, but acknowledged that finding a city-owned building that meets the requirements for becoming a prison was “no quick easy solution.”

Ponte has a reputation as a reformer, and was appointed by Mayor de Blasio in March to fix a prison system that is wracked by stark violence and institutional corruption. But Ponte’s commitment to reform has been questioned by some on the city council, who believe he displayed poor judgment in his choice of department officials. Earlier this year, Ponte promoted the former warden of Rikers, William Clemons, to chief of the city corrections department despite his central involvement in a data fraud scandal at the prison.

According to a 2012 internal departmental audit, Clemons failed to oversee the reporting of statistics on inmate fights at the Robert N. Davoren Complex, giving the false impression that the number of incidents had fallen dramatically under his leadership. Despite these allegations, Ponte appointed him to one of the most powerful positions in his department. It wasn’t until October 28 that a city corrections spokesperson announced that Clemons, along with two other high-level deputies, were departing for good. On the same day, de Blasio appointed three new members to the Board of Corrections, which oversees the DOC and is tasked with ensuring minimum standards are met throughout the city’s correctional facilities.

These steps are part of a departmental shakeup meant to prove that the de Blasio administration is serious about reforming New York’s juvenile justice system.

* * * * *

Local advocates have long argued for fundamental changes in how the city handles teen incarceration. One of their primary focuses is raising the age of criminal responsibility to 18 and preventing the state from prosecuting 16- and 17-year-olds as adults. Each year, over 45,000 juveniles are arrested and placed in adult prisons in New York state, constituting a large swath of the population of 53,692 under custody this year.

Angelo Pinto, campaign manager for Raise the Age at the Correctional Association of New York, has been fighting to change this for the past two years. After a few years of petitioning Governor Cuomo’s office, Pinto and his team succeeded in pushing for a task force that will look at the effects of raising the age and “create a roadmap to help these young people become productive, successful adults.”

The campaign’s next milestone: ensuring that Commissioner Ponte writes the aimed-for age limit into a pending report outlining his own recommendations for reform.

Ponte has already shown some indication that he’s open to their suggestions. At the October City Council hearing, he spoke of “brain science” showing that “young people’s development may continue into their mid-20s.” Yet he has not moved forward on legislation regarding the age-limit—a situation that stirs concern for many working in the field.

If new legislation to raise the criminal age were to pass, Yuval Sheer, deputy director of the New York Center for Juvenile Justice suggested that it could open up “an opportunity to engage hundreds of NGOs that exist.” Alternatives to incarceration are already operating at the heels of the community in the form of youth programs and support systems. “NGOs will fill the gap of the almost 50,000 adolescents incarcerated every year,” he says.

This, nonetheless, would demand an overhaul of aspects of the judiciary system. For one, parents will have to be notified once their children are arrested. Judges presiding over the cases of minors would also have to get specialized training. In February, the Center for Juvenile Justice worked with the New York State Office of Court Administration to offer one of seven specialized statewide training sessions. It was designed to analyze the issues faced by judges in juvenile cases and “introduce judges to the cognitive, behavioral and psychological characteristics of adolescents,” according to the Center’s website.

“To inspire” is a judge’s responsibility, Sheer says. He thinks they should make use of the range of opportunities and resources that can be offered to minors instead of relying exclusively on prison sentences. This can only be achieved by striking a “dialogue” between judges and juveniles.

* * * * *

Ten years after her release from prison, Anjelique Wadlington, now 29, sees herself as a cautionary tale. She mentors incarcerated girls, gives talks to criminal justice students on how to properly treat inmates, and speaks at international conventions. Her time in prison made her realize that interacting with people her own age might have eased her ordeal.

According to Serena Liquori, program and advocacy director for the Herstory Writers Workshop, transforming the perception of how juveniles are treated is a fundamental challenge. Most people on the outside think imprisoned juveniles are dealt with as minors, but Herstory offers insight into their real lives by providing writing workshops to the community of women in prison on Long Island, as well as students caught in the school-to-prison pipeline.

Commissioner Ponte recently announced a host of new reforms aimed at addressing the complaints voiced by Wadlington and prison justice advocates. Corrections officers will have to undergo a new training curriculum, and all inmate reports alleging use of force or any form of mistreatment “will be reviewed in real time, as they occur.” This means that the administration will have to comply within 60 days as opposed to several months, the former response time.

“Life in [the Robert N. Davoren Complex],” Ponte said, “is different today than it was six months ago.”

The facility’s population was cut in half after 18-year-old adolescents were relocated, giving younger inmates more living space. And the inmate-to-guard ratio in all of the facilities at Rikers was halved to 15:1.

Ponte also announced two new partnerships with non-profit organizations aimed at introducing violence intervention and teaching communities about the conditions juveniles face. Other NGOs, such as the Gathering of Justice are making use of what Carmen Perez, executive director of the social justice organization, calls a “tipping point” in the conversation between city officials and advocacy workers.

The conversation about juvenile justice, which she argues has been going on for decades—and “is only now being heard by the state”—cannot ignore non-government organizations that have been at its forefront. Perez’s group worked to launch a large national conference to discuss youth incarceration in September.

The three-day conference, titled "Growing Up Locked Down," came out of Perez’s vision to create “a space that brought policy makers, incarcerated youth, and juvenile justice workers together.” Conference participants produced two policy papers that will be presented to the mayor’s office after they’ve been further amended at community councils in the next eight months.

According to Angelo Pinto of Raise the Age, it is only now, after decades of hard work, that these issues are being discussed and debated in the corridors of power.

“What is different now,” he says, “is a national conversation about mass incarceration; an administration that made youth justice a priority; and a desire to reduce spending on criminal justice.”


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