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

That's the South Bronx speaking, where Carrión grew up and attended Morris High School. At Morris, she says, the staff "picked the 100 kids they were going to invest in." She was one of them—"And the rest, they left on their own." Her mother was a seamstress in the Garment District, and her father was an elevator operator at the Federal Courthouse in Foley Square. The day she got sworn in as an attorney, Carrión rode her father's elevator in the courthouse, and cried. She went on to become a legal services attorney specializing in family law, a director of a group home for homeless girls, and vice president of the United Way (NYC chapter).

Carrión hadn't spent much time outside of the Bronx before attending NYU Law School. She had done her undergraduate work at Fordham University, which was largely Italian and Irish then, and she lobbied for the creation of a Puerto Rican Studies program there. She started a Latino students group, and called it "El Grito" ("The Scream"). Like another South Bronx Latina, Sonia Sotomayor, Carrión was one of a handful of women in her law school classes in the mid-'70s, and she participated in the burgeoning identity politics movements of the decade.

At NYU, Carrión joined and eventually led the Puerto Rican Law Students Association. She also developed bonds that she maintains to this day, mostly with students whose backgrounds were similar to hers. She met her husband, Hector Soto, a Puerto Rican from Queens who went on to become the first head of the city's Civilian Complaint Review Board. And she became best friends with three female classmates who were also Puerto Rican. For the past 15 years, the four women have taken an annual foreign vacation together—no husbands allowed. They call themselves the "Lawtinas"—in 15 years, they've visited more than a dozen Spanish-speaking countries, like Chile, Mexico, Argentina, and Peru.

Gladys Carrión: Bringing kids home and making enemies upstate
Willie Davis
Gladys Carrión: Bringing kids home and making enemies upstate
Tryon Boys Residential Center, now bereft of inmates, but not of union employees.
New York Office of Children and Family Services
Tryon Boys Residential Center, now bereft of inmates, but not of union employees.

But even with that curiosity about the rest of the world, Carrión was certain of two things: that she'd stay in New York, and that she'd never become a corporate lawyer. "There was no way for my parents to go through so much for me to go to law school so that I could go to work for a corporate law firm and spend my life making money for some corporation," she says. "No way."

Carrión, who still lives in the Bronx, says that the families she deals with in OCFS are the same families she knew in her childhood. "I don't know if it's my sensitivity, but my sense of urgency—I understand the reality of families. A lot of time when we come in, we end up doing more harm than good. When I go to visit facilities, it literally broke my heart to go in and look at these kids that are all black and brown. And I'm thinking, these could be my kids. They look like my son. They look like my nephew. There are all these black and brown faces, and I can't stand it."

Once a month, Carrión meets privately with children in foster care and in custody. She has her staff drive them down to New York City from facilities all across the state. Besides her director of child welfare, she doesn't let any other adults in the room. "I make the staff take them out of jail and bring them to me," she says, obviously taking some delight in the anti-euphemistic word "jail."

And what do the kids talk about? "They say it's boring," Carrión says. "One of the girls is telling me, 'There's nothing going on here!' School is boring. They want yoga, they want dance classes, they want arts and crafts."

They want yoga?

"Of course they want yoga!" she says. "They want to be engaged!"

Reversing years of neglect in the state's juvenile justice system has not only meant closing bad facilities, shortening custody periods, and banning most physical restraints. There was also a significant problem with children whose parents or foster families abandoned them while they were in state custody. When children completed their sentences, they had no home to return to—they were effectively homeless.

Sometimes, OCFS would continue to incarcerate young people after their sentences had ended, merely because they didn't have anywhere else to put them. Carrión announced an end to that practice. (It still happens, but far less often, according to a recent government report.) "I refuse to incarcerate kids because they are homeless," she tells the Voice. She also ended a practice of releasing these children into homeless shelters. "They would just drop them off at a shelter," she says. "I don't want to hear it—that you can't find them a home. There was no discussion about it."

Carrión also restored the office of the ombudsman, which was completely dysfunctional when she arrived, according to the State Inspector General—inmates can now call a hotline and speak directly to an ombudsman whenever they feel abused (which infuriates staff employees, who accuse the children of manipulating the ombudsman). She installed video cameras in the facilities so she could catch every act of physical restraint on tape (naturally, these changes have caused a spike in the number of child abuse investigations). She also hired 37 mental health professionals (including a full-time psychiatrist) and has gradually been putting employees through intense retraining in trauma therapy.

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