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ON THE SCENE: Challenges of incarcerating youth in New York

April 20, 2018
By NAJ WIKOFF , Lake Placid News

If all goes according to plan, next October the Adirondack Correctional Facility in Ray Brook will have converted from a medium-security adult to a juvenile detention facility for 16- and 17-year-olds.

Heretofore, New York state prosecuted such youth as adults, but beginning this year with the passage of the Raise the Age law, offenders under the age of 18 will be tried as juveniles and housed in separate facilities.

On Sunday, April 8, professor, author and social worker Alexandra Cox, who teaches criminology at Essex University in England, discussed the history, premise and reality of youth detention in New York state and what it's likely to bode for Adirondack Correctional and the youth housed there. John Brown Lives! sponsored her presentation, which was held at the Cabin Grill at Hotel North Woods and attended by a small but very inquisitive crowd.

Article Photos

Alexandra Cox, left, and Martha Swan
(Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

Cox, who spent three years working with youth offenders and prison officials within the New York correctional facilities, examined the benefits and challenges of the current system and began by discussing its history and premise. In essence, the notion is if one removes a young offender from their family and community environment, places them in a highly regimented system, and uses incentives to encourage desired behavior, then they will have the best chance of re-entering society with appropriate behavior that reflects societal norms. She described that approach as carceral humanism, the myth being that this approach provides the incarcerated a humane constructive environment when the reality is anything but.

Based on her research and experience, Cox believes this approach is flawed on multiple levels, rarely achieves stated goals and should be replaced with a different modality. First and foremost, Cox notes that we as a society spend little effort and few resources in addressing the challenges facing disadvantaged youth in society; some living in poverty, broken homes and rundown neighborhoods are often subjected to racism and may be living with untreated mental health conditions.

Many people on the lower economic end of the spectrum work two, three or more jobs in an attempt just to cover basic living expenses, reducing their time and opportunity for parenting. In our region, as is true in many, there is a shortage of mental health professionals, and the cost of health insurance is high, as is healthy organic produce. Across the nation, teachers are revolting because of their low pay and often difficult working conditions. As a nation, Cox feels we have not made the care, health and education of youth a priority, and if we did so, far fewer would end up in prison.

Next Cox feels the courts do not have enough flexibility in how they may sentence youth. Also, she feels another error is not engaging parents and guardians in the decision-making process that determines how best to address the actions a youth and develop a plan for remediation and punishment if needed.

Instead, the courts make decisions for "other people's children," often doing so in a manner that they would not impose on a child of their own.

Upon arrival in the detention facility, the young inmates are often given a pair of sneakers with white shoelaces, which signifies that they will have the most restrictive routine. If they meet prescribed behavior markers, they get a different colored pair of shoelaces, such as yellow. Do better, blue. Top of the heap gets green. For some facilities, such as for young women, instead of different colored shoelaces, it can be different colored bands for their hair. The outcome is a class system, with those in each class earning and getting privileges based on their behavior.

In Cox's experience, many of the youth learn how to work the system as a means of achieving the benefits, but what they are missing are opportunities for gaining tools they can use to change their lives, express themselves creatively and achieve the goal most articulated - to get into college.

As Cox said, ask any parent or high school teacher, and they will tell you the teenage years are a challenge. Their bodies, voices and emotions are changing. They learn new information at an incredible rate. As child psychologist Jeffrey Miller writes, "Teen years are chaotic and overwhelming in both the scope and number of normal developmental challenges facing the teenager, even without depression, anxiety, attention deficits, executive functioning deficits and learning differences that visit so many of our teenagers."

"Criminalized children become these children on to whom work must be done to fix them," said Cox. "Even though their own relationship to being fixed and their own internal struggles about the acts they have committed, their own sense of worth, and their own relationship to the adults who have criminalized them is so misunderstood by those adults. Very little time is spent understanding and contextualizing the young person's life and action. Instead, much is spent obsessing about fixing them."

Cox says such teens tossed in a correctional facility are "Trapped in a Vice," as described in her book so titled. The highly structured format is counter-productive and results in kids figuring out how to manipulate the system while not gaining the skills needed to once out create a viable path forward through getting an education or job with advancement prospects. The outcome is many end up back in prison. Her short-term hope is that local educational and cultural agencies will reach out Adirondack Correctional to provide whatever services they can to help improve conditions within the prison, while at the same time advocating for changes in the system and increased services for youth.

"I think these are important decisions in a democracy," said Rich Strean, of Elizabethtown, after Cox's presentation. "I think it's a good thing that the state is rethinking how it treats young people and that it's not just making 16-year-olds out to be adults because they're not, developmentally. I think if we can make progress in giving them opportunities to sort it out, then when they leave the system that will be all to the good."

"I think that Cox is on to a lot of things that are important," said Matthew Waite, a Plattsburgh, criminal defense attorney. "I think she brought up issues that are necessary to look at as far as improving our criminal justice system. I'd like to see more events like this happen, for Cox to come back, and that we keep the conversation going."



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