Girls in New York’s juvenile prisons are being abused and neglected by state authorities, Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union charged in a report released today.
The report, “Custody and Control: Conditions of Confinement in New York’s Juvenile Prisons for Girls,” provides an in-depth look at the abuses and neglect suffered by girls confined in two remote New York juvenile facilities known as Tryon and Lansing. The facilities are operated by the New York Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS) and are the only two higher-security facilities in New York State holding girls.
“New York wants to hide the fate of the girls it incarcerates,” said Mie Lewis, the report’s author and Aryeh Neier Fellow at Human Rights Watch and the ACLU. “The abuses have continued because the public has been kept in the dark.”
The report documents that Lansing and Tryon staffs frequently restrain girls violently, seizing them from behind and pushing them to the floor, then pulling their arms up behind them to hold or handcuff. Although such a restraint procedure may be appropriate in an emergency, the indications are that the staffs sometimes use it to punish girls for minor acts such as improperly making their beds or not raising their hands before speaking. Using such violent restraints for minor infractions constitutes a disproportionate and excessive use of force. Girls who have been restrained typically end up with “rug burns” – abrasions on their faces – as well as cuts, bruises, and in rare cases a concussion or a broken limb.
Incarcerated girls may also be at risk of sexual abuse. Human Rights Watch and the ACLU documented three cases in the past five years of staff having intercourse with their wards. The report also reveals that staff have touched girls in sexual ways and made sexual comments to them. Staff members at Tryon and Lansing have also humiliated girls by publicly commenting on their past sexual history, sexual abuse or infection with sexually transmitted diseases.
Human Rights Watch and the ACLU are also concerned by the practice of staff handcuffing and shackling the girls at Tryon and Lansing every time they leave the facilities, a clear violation of OCFS’s own regulations. Girls are frequently and unnecessarily subjected to strip searches, verbal abuse and threats as well.
Compounding the abuses in the facilities is the almost complete lack of public information about what goes on inside. State watchdogs are weak and understaffed, leaving no effective body to demand accountability, and the OCFS itself actively resists public scrutiny. The agency refused to grant researchers access to its facilities and attempted to withhold crucial non-confidential documents from public disclosure.
“New York says it locks these girls up for their own good, but then they end up battered and bruised,” said Jamie Fellner, director of the U.S. Program at Human Rights Watch. “There’s no way staff violence against girls can help them get their lives together, particularly when so many of the girls already have personal histories full of violence and abuse.”
Almost 19 percent of youth entering New York’s juvenile prisons are girls, yet the facilities short-change girls by denying them access to essential educational services. Girls complain they have long periods of time, particularly on weekends, in which they are kept in their rooms and given nothing constructive to do.
“Boys receive vocational education including engine repair and food preparation courses leading to nationally recognized certifications, but girls held in the same facility or just across the street are barred from these classes,” said Lenora Lapidus, director of the ACLU Women’s Rights Project. “New York is enforcing outdated gender stereotypes and young women are being denied the chance to develop skills they need to survive in the outside world.”
The majority of girls in the Tryon and Lansing facilities are 15- or 16-years-old, although some are as young as 12. Almost 73 percent are African American or Hispanic, and many come from poorer neighborhoods in New York City. The information available to Human Rights Watch and the ACLU suggests that the majority of girls who are locked up in Tryon and Lansing have suffered past physical and sexual abuse, and that many need mental health care as well as treatment for drug and alcohol addiction. Yet New York fails to deliver adequate mental health and treatment services to all the girls who need them, and seems more determined to maintain a punitive environment than to provide support and therapeutic care, said the organizations. Although the two facilities ostensibly house girls in security classifications that range from low-security “non-secure” to high-security “medium secure” and “secure,” the conditions are essentially the same.
The problems identified in the report are not limited to New York alone. Nationally more than 95,000 children are in the custody of juvenile justice agencies – over 4,000 of them in New York. The proportion of girls among incarcerated youth in New York has grown from 14 percent in the mid-1990s to almost 19 percent in 2004.
Today Human Rights Watch and the ACLU called upon New York to drastically curtail the use of the face-down “restraint” procedure and immediately revise its restraint policies to comply with human rights norms. OCFS must also comply with its own regulations concerning facilities oversight. In view of the findings detailed in “Custody and Control,” Human Rights Watch and the ACLU recommend that New York move urgently to ensure that conditions of confinement for girls comply with federal and state laws and international standards.
“New York must change its practices for the sake of these girls’ futures,” said Lewis.
Testimony from Incarcerated Girls:
“Staff here do restraints and they do it bad. I been restrained two times during my stay here and they do it to hurt you. And if you don’t get along with that staff then they hurt you, like when I got restrained they had messed up my face real bad, they broke someone’s arm before, busted my lip, that’s one thing I don’t like about here. ... I just think they shouldn’t touch us ’cause us kids get hurt real bad.”
– Letter from Felicia H., who was 17-years-old when confined in Tryon
“If you’re gay they think you think you’re a man, so they restrain you harder. They have an attitude of ‘If you want to be a man, I’ll restrain you like a man.’ That place [Lansing] was unstable. I was restrained 10 or 12 times.”
– Testimony of Devon A., who was 15-years-old when confined in Lansing
“They lock us up so far from home. How are our parents supposed to come see us? They’re not so fortunate to be able to go all the way upstate. My family never came. It was too far. And my aunt had a little baby.”
– Testimony of Janine Y., who was in her teens when confined in Tryon