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

As much success as Carrión has had branding upstate facilities as inadequate and closing them, she's had to struggle to create alternatives closer to home.

In Brooklyn, Carrión has built a facility that is a model of what she wants the rest of the system to look like. Instead of looking like a prison, it's just a house, indistinguishable from those around it. Even the neighbors aren't aware that some of the kids housed there have committed violent felonies, and would probably still be locked up somewhere upstate were it not for Carrión.

These particular subjects have been removed from other facilities near the end of their sentences, and are receiving intensive therapy closer to home before being released. Some of them wear GPS-monitored ankle bracelets. Their parents come by to get therapy, too. The kids also get paid $7 an hour over the summer to learn and apply home-renovation skills—in this case, to renovate the house itself.

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.

Under a popular Carrión rubric known as "The Sanctuary Model" the residents are encouraged to "call a circle" every time they feel angry or under threat. (The Sanctuary Model is becoming popular around the country because of a similar model's success in Missouri, where recidivism was lowered to a surprising 10 percent.)

For example, the kids are working to remodel the house. Someone flicks paint on someone's iPod, and a fight is imminent. Someone calls a circle to de-escalate the situation. When that happens, everyone in the program has to stop what they are doing, and sit around and talk about how they feel about what happened, and discuss how their past experiences contributed to the way they reacted. According to director Angela Coper, there are good days, but on bad days, the kids and the program staff might call up to 10 circles a day. It is tedious, she agrees—and you don't see results right away. Sometimes, it just doesn't work out, and they send kids home or back to incarceration.

Outside of the house, the Voice talked to some young people as they were packing up to leave for the day. One girl, who was 16 and wearing a GPS ankle bracelet, had just been in Tryon, but did not specify why. Without being prompted, she brought up the use of restraints: "In Tryon, they restrained my sister so hard that she doo-dooed in her pants—right there on the floor."

"That's gross! Don't say that," says another girl sitting beside her. That young woman, also 16, was wearing a baseball cap and a colorful canvas belt—and she had left the price tag on both. She had also been in Tryon. She says she was sent there for grand larceny, racking up $13,000 on a credit card at Bloomingdale's and then running away. When she got out, her mother no longer wanted her, so she was staying at a cousin's house. "Ooh, I hated Tryon," she said. "I was talking to the ombudsman every day. The ombudsman, she good. She got me outta there." In the program, the girl wearing the baseball cap was learning to renovate floors. She had just been promoted to team manager. It was still kind of boring, she said, but she liked it. It beat being in Tryon.

Although Carrión calculates that she has saved the state about $37 million by closing so many facilities (it costs around $215,000 a year to keep a child in such a place), she can't directly recover that money to put into programs in the city that tend to cost a lot less—$5,000 to $15,000 per child. And even though Governor Paterson's own task force recommended putting more money into local alternatives to upstate incarceration, his latest budget slashed those funds to $3 million, from $13 million the year before.

Carrión has been successful in cutting down the number of New York City kids that are shipped upstate. Last month, only 683 remained in custody.

But fewer offenders being housed upstate means more to handle down here, or in less restrictive facilities. And that, say her detractors, is a disaster waiting to happen.

Just look at Renee Greco, say Carrión's critics. In June 2009, Greco, a staff member at an upstate group home for troubled youths, was attacked by two male residents—one a former inmate at Tryon. The teens were accused of throwing a blanket over Greco's head and bludgeoning her to death. One has pled guilty to manslaughter, and the other faces trial in late August.

"Renee's family wanted to hold her before she died, but the authorities wouldn't let her because it was too traumatic," Senator Young tells the Voice. Greco's relatives spoke at Young's hearing. Her aunt said that in the weeks before she was killed, she was getting increasingly nervous about going to work, and was planning to quit.

Could Greco's death have been prevented if she or her colleagues had been allowed to aggressively restrain the kids at her group home? Should the boys who killed her have been housed at a high-security OFCS facility, rather than be moved to the less secure group home? Greco's death is a strong reminder that some young people are incredibly—maybe uncontrollably—violent, and that for every nonviolent child who is being unfairly incarcerated, there may be another who deserves to be under stricter supervision.

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