By David Brand
Arrested at 15, convicted in Queens Criminal Court earlier this month at 19, Prakash Churaman grew up on Rikers Island.
Churaman’s four-year detention is the sort of teenage tragedy that New York’s new Raise the Age law is designed to remedy — but few institutional supports exist to address the experiences of young people just old enough to remain in adult facilities.
The neurobiology research is clear: young people’s brains develop well into their mid-20s and detention in adult facilities has a significant impact on that development, said Children’s Defense Fund Director of Youth Justice and Child Welfare Director, Julia Davis.
That recognition helped spur the statewide Raise the Age campaign to move 16- and 17-year-olds out of adult jails and divert the majority of their cases to Family Court. But the mental and emotional outcomes associated with youth incarceration — including suicide, substance abuse and recidivism — do not disappear the moment someone turns 18.
“Looking at 18-, 19-, 20-, 21-year-olds, we know that these settings don’t meet their needs,” Davis said.
Like Churaman — who was convicted of second-degree murder — many young people who spent a chunk of their childhood on Rikers are left behind, reliving the trauma of teenage incarceration inside the same walls where they celebrated milestone birthdays, contended with puberty and took high school classes.
“It’s troubling because for young people to develop, they need to be in a community and getting supports they need and building positive connections with adults — connections with people who support them and care for them,” Davis said. “That is completely inconsistent with incarceration in a setting like Rikers, where the relationship between adults and children is one of policing and control and not mentorship, growth and development.”
On Oct. 1, children under 18 were moved from Rikers to Horizon juvenile facility, a Bronx detention center that provides support for adolescent defendants. New York juvenile justice policies aligned with those of 48 other states when the state Raise the Age law took effect.
“Kids will be treated like kids instead of adults,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a statement announcing the enactment of the law. “This is an historic moment for criminal justice reform and another step toward replacing Rikers Island with smaller, safer, more humane facilities that are closer to communities and loved ones.”
Yet the initiative neglects young adults, whose mental health needs can go unmet. Though several organizations attempt to connect with people in jail and prison to provide counseling and training, the services they offer are typically limited until the person is released or in the months leading up to release.
The lack of support can affect development and contribute to dangerous outcomes throughout one’s life, as in the case of Kalief Browder who committed suicide after he spent three years on Rikers Island as a teenager.
“Trauma experienced as a child has a strong predictive power to later experiences of depression, anxiety difficulties with self-regulation, substance use and/or interpersonal problems,” said Emily Kime, a licensed clinical social worker.
According to the Campaign for Youth Justice (CFYJ), an organization based in Washington D.C., about 76,000 children are tried, sentenced or incarcerated as adults every year across the United States. Each day, about 4,200 young people are detained in adult jails nationwide.*
Young people in adult facilities are 36 times more likely to commit suicide than young people housed in facilities for children, CFYJ reports. Children detained in adult facilities are 34 percent more likely to than those housed in juvenile facilities to re-arrested for a violent or other crime, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Facilities and services that focus on rehabilitation and support for young people go a long way to reduce those fatal disparities, said CFYJ Executive Director Marcy Mistrett.
“There is a focus on rehabilitation and training specialized [staff]. The facilities are smaller. They’re required to go to school. The focus is on engaging families as part of the solution,” Mistrett said. “None of this is done perfectly [but] Raise the Age is a good first step.”
This article is Part One in a series about young adults detained on Rikers Island and the implementation of the Raise the Age law.
*Correction: This article originally cited older CFYJ data that reported a higher number of children in adult facilities and a higher number of children prosecuted as adults. Because of reform efforts nationwide, the number of children in adult facilities and the number of children prosecuted as adults have both decreased.