Shutting Upstate Jails for City Kids Has Made a Fiery Bronx Bureaucrat a Host of Enemies

People upstate consider the Bronx's Gladys Carrión Satan incarnate

There was a growing consensus that the system needed a fix, but Carrión has gone farther than anyone expected. She has closed 14 facilities, which she sarcastically calls "jails." She has banned staff from using most forms of physical restraint against children. She has rerouted youthful offenders into cheaper, therapeutic programs that are located close to home (which, for most, means New York City). In three years, she has managed to cut by more than half the number of children who get placed in state custody.

In her speech, she now discusses Tryon, talking about the staff members watching almost no kids. "And they're doing overtime! And they're claiming worker's comp!" she says.

"I don't know what they do all day," she later tells the Voice. "They sit around and paint the walls." Even with the low number of residents, she says, the facility still ranks highest for physically restraining children—many of which the U.S. Department of Justice has called unconstitutional because they lead to serious injuries.

Carrión: "If you're gonna go after me, you better prepare yourself."
Willie Davis
Carrión: "If you're gonna go after me, you better prepare yourself."
State Senator Catharine Young: Carrión is deliberately making the juvenile justice system fail.
Senator Catharine Young
State Senator Catharine Young: Carrión is deliberately making the juvenile justice system fail.

And she then makes the kind of damning charge that drives state employee union officials into a rage: She says that research and video evidence proves that workers at places like Tryon provoke kids into acting out so they can restrain them improperly and injure themselves on the job.

With that kind of staff, she explains, it's simply better to close a facility: "Quite frankly, I just don't think I can change the culture there. It's a toxic environment. Some staff have been there for 25 years. They're all related to one another. It's a company town!"

In her public talks, she's just as blunt: "I am not running the Economic Development Agency for upstate New York," she says. "I will no longer export black and brown kids to finance the upstate economy."

In the course of one speech, Carrión not only sang the praises of children in her care, but also managed to insinuate that her employees are intractable and violent bigots. Even some of Carrión's supporters cringed.

One person at the talk told the Voice, "I don't know how you go back and hold a staff meeting after that."

But Carrión has already developed a way to deal with that. For places that need closure, she sends in associate commissioner Anthony Hough. A career agency man who was around when it was still called the Division for Youth, he's the one who tells state workers they've lost their jobs, and it's a role he says is necessary.

"In the beginning, [Carrión] sat us down and said, 'Look, we've only got four years in this thing,' " Hough says. "And there's a large portion of people in the agency—the majority—who believe in what she's doing. There are about 20 percent who are biding their time, privately saying, 'Well, Gladys might not be around in four years.' And there's another 20 percent who aren't going to get it, no matter what you do. And those are the folks we just need to move out. We need to find them jobs in other places."

Privately, though, some of Carrión's supporters wonder if she's assuring her own destruction. While she currently has Governor David Paterson's support (she was appointed by Eliot Spitzer), his replacement—probably Andrew Cuomo—is in deep with the state's unions. It's hard to see him continuing with someone so loathed by union leaders.

But even on that point, Carrión is flip: "Sure, I could say, if I could stay here longer, I could get more done. But then you start making safe choices," she says. "You know, I'm not courting favors here. I'm not independently wealthy. I need a job, but, you know, I can find work. I'm not dependent on a union for work. I'm not dependent on a politician for work. . . . Yeah, it would be nice if I had more time. I could play it safe, you know, lay low, not push to close any more facilities, be more conciliatory. But, you know, that never crossed my mind."

As for her legions of critics, she says, "They have no moral fiber anyway, so who cares?"

On a Wednesday morning in a large hearing room in the Capitol building in Albany, a Republican state senator from several Western counties south of Rochester, Catharine Young, is standing before a giant PowerPoint slide entitled, "The Results of the Carrión Regime."

A former journalist, Young is in a district so Democrat-proof, she received 78 percent of the vote in the 2008 election. She is flanked by a few other upstate senators, as well as Martin Golden, a Republican from Brooklyn. The audience is made up of staff members from juvenile facilities, legislative staffers, and some journalists.

Young chairs the nine-member Senate Republican Task Force on Juvenile Justice Reform, which she says she formed because Carrión's policies of releasing young offenders early are leading to increased violence.

At Tryon Girls Residential Center, there has been an estimated 300 percent increase in injuries from inmate-on-inmate violence from 2007–2008. Gossett Jr. Residential Center had 36 incidents in the first five months of 2008.

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