By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
For decades, this state's rural counties could count on one cash crop never failing: a steady harvest of New York City's convicted criminals being sent north for incarceration. Many local upstate economies are built on reaping that rich yield, which is particularly abundant in its brown and black varieties.
Governor Nelson Rockefeller did his part, providing the fertilizer that assured there would be no shortage of new shoots springing from the city's soil. His notorious drug laws are synonymous with an overreaction to drug use; in his 1973 State of the State speech, he argued for life sentences for juvenile drug offenders.
But if Rockefeller plowed new ground, it was Mario Cuomo who made sure upstate counties were ready for whatever the city could gather: During the time he was governor, from 1983 to 1994, the state added more prison beds than all the previous governors in the state's history, combined. Cuomo built 29 correctional facilities—28 in Republican districts—and more than a dozen juvenile facilities as well. Overall, the state's prison population increased fivefold, and the juvenile population had its own steady increase.
Over time, two things became apparent: First, that conservative, upstate Senate districts were becoming as addicted to the jobs and money that come with prisons as any heroin junkie; second, that just about the worst way to deal with juvenile crime in New York City was to send young offenders to the dangerous hellholes that pass for juvenile facilities upstate.
Gradually, over the past decade, the city began sending fewer kids to places like the Tryon School for Boys, which was renamed the Tryon Residential Center to help rid itself of the stink of incidents like the 2006 death of inmate Darryl Thompson, who stopped breathing with two prison guards holding him down in handcuffs.
But even with fewer inmates going north, there was simply too much history of upstate's addiction to downstate miscreants for any major change to occur. Young offenders were still being sent upstate so that facilities built by Mario Cuomo could continue to justify their large, well-paid staffs.
And then suddenly, three years ago, like a plague of locusts, something showed up to put the entire cash crop in danger.
You may not have heard of her—people upstate, however, consider her Satan incarnate.
She's the commissioner of the Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS), a $4 billion agency that oversees foster care, adoption, and juvenile delinquency in New York State. Horrified by what she found in facilities upstate, Carrión set out to close down the most egregious juvenile centers and rid all facilities of the worst kinds of practices for physically restraining kids.
Tryon is a good example. Long known as the worst facility in the state and a place that only turned troubled kids into even worse adults, Tryon was successfully slated for closure by Carrión; it will close permanently in January.
Today, Tryon Boys has no more inmates, but as the Voice first reported and The New York Times later confirmed, Tryon's last few inmates were being watched by 129 employees, who still work at the empty facility.
Locked into union contracts that tie her hands, Carrión has no choice but to keep on a full complement of employees at Tryon until a year after being given notice that the facility will shut down (half have now taken voluntary reassignment).
She wants to shut down many others. In fact, what makes her so unusual is that it's hard to remember any government official who so ardently wanted to put herself out of a job: She is systematically dismantling significant parts of the state agency that she oversees.
And for the upstate districts that have, for so many years, relied on the hellish system that preceded Carrión's tenure, she must be stopped at all costs.
On a May morning, Gladys Carrión, 57, shows up at Midtown's sleek Pfizer building to deliver a speech. She is wearing a business suit and elements of her typical look—light turquoise eyeliner, and bright red star-shaped earrings the size of quarters. She is so small, at only about five feet, that she just barely peeks over the podium.
After thanking former District Attorney candidate Richard Aborn for the speaking invitation, she gets right into trashing her own agency: "In New York State, the juvenile justice system is broken—by any standard." She then launches into a litany of grim statistics that she brings up just about everywhere she goes—about how 80 percent of young people in custody are substance abusers, 65 percent have mental health disorders, and 89 percent of boys will be rearrested for a felony, many within six months of being released.
She grows visibly upset, as if she herself were hearing these statistics for the first time: "Some of my facilities are toxic for children!"
She sounds like a typical anti-government activist, railing at the system. But then you remind yourself: She is the system.
Even before Carrión arrived to take over OCFS, it was obvious that the state's juvenile justice system was in serious trouble: Recidivism rates had hovered around 85 percent for a decade, the agency didn't have a single full-time psychiatrist, and the federal government had announced it was launching an investigation into child abuse in four troubled facilities (including Tryon).