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

Carrión also visits facilities. After her first trip to Tryon, she told a reporter that she sat in her car in the parking lot and cried. (She refuses a state-issued driver, preferring to drive her own car.) Paul Fiore, who gave her the tour, remembers it this way: "She came in with her entourage. They picked a young child to give the tour—maybe, he was 12. And during the tour, she only spoke to the child, asking him dozens of questions about his life. She didn't even talk to me, not once. She didn't even look at me once in the eye."

Carrión also began taking other people on tours of the facilities—not just the media, but people like Joel Klein, the head of the city's Department of Education. She wanted to show Klein how bad her schools were, with the hopes that he would take them over and accredit them. "I wanted him to review the educational program. Our teachers don't get oversight, or support—there isn't enough special ed. The different systems need to assume responsibility for these kids. They need to partner with me in educating them. I always say, who made me the education queen? Same with mental health. You need to partner with me—because I'm essentially running a mental health institution here. We have experts. And what about substance abuse issues? Hello! There's a substance abuse agency in the state, and it ain't me! I see my role as commissioner is to be the cheerleader for more people to take responsibility for these kids."

Despite the grousing upstate, Carrión has many fans in the city. Vincent Schiraldi, the Mike Bloomberg–appointed commissioner of the city's Department of Probation, says there's no question that Carrión has made a major difference, even if it has put a target on her back. "I think that her biggest accomplishment is that she's closed 14 facilities that were pretty abusive places for kids to go to. She inherited a benign and sort of a stupid model," Schiraldi says. "No one could imagine sending a kid from the South Bronx to the Adirondacks, and a year later and $150,000 poorer, that was a move that was somehow going to improve public safety?

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.

"I think it's difficult for people to grasp how heroic the closure of those facilities really is. Bar none, that's her biggest accomplishment. With the union battle, you know, in these facilities, unfortunately, they are some of the best blue-collar jobs around. It's a general failure of the state that they haven't been able to capture the savings from shutting down those facilities," Schiraldi says.

In September 2008, Governor Paterson ordered a task force of experts to look into the system, which he said had reached a state of crisis. Last summer, the federal Department of Justice announced the results of its own investigation, which found that young people in the four facilities it examined were suffering "alarming numbers" of injuries, including broken bones: "Anything from stealing an extra cookie to initiating a fist fight may result in a full-prone restraint with handcuffs," the report found. In one case, a girl who had threatened to urinate on the floor suffered a "concussion, vomited, urinated, and defecated" when she was thrown on the floor by a 300-pound staff member. (A facility investigator had ruled the use of force was not excessive.) At the end of last year, the governor's task force made its report of the entire system, and it was equally scathing: It concluded that kids were getting sent upstate not because they posed a risk, but because their communities lacked the resources and programs that could have treated them closer to home.

The task force report gave Carrión the ammunition she needed: She took it to the judges of the state's family courts and asked them to stop sending kids to her facilities unless they posed an immediate danger to society. (The head family court judge complied.)

Instead of complaining that federal and state investigators had maligned her agency, Carrión said that, actually, things were even worse than the public knew, and she asked the courts to shut off the pipeline of kids that for so long has been a source of jobs and revenue for upstate counties.

Supervising Family Court Judge Edwina Richardson-Mendelson tells the Voice that many of her colleagues were surprised by the harshness of the official reports. "It is the judges who have the ultimate responsibility for placing these children in these settings, settings where they will be free from harm, receive appropriate education and treatment," she says. "The judges didn't know what actually goes on in these facilities." Other judges tell a different story: They tell the Voice they were aware that the upstate facilities could be harmful for children—they lack proper mental health services, the educational quality is terrible, and many of the inmates put there have committed nonviolent offenses.

But Queens Family Court Judge Fran Lubow says there's a serious lack of better options. There aren't enough resources in the city tailored to the specific and wide-ranging problems of child offenders: mental health services, substance abuse programs, sex offense therapy, and therapy that involves not just the child but the parents, too. Research has shown that these kinds of tailored programs—especially ones that work with parents—lead to much better outcomes. But the city has been slow to develop such programs with so much money headed upstate.

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