By David Brand
With a January deadline approaching, the Department of Correction (DOC) has failed to uphold an oversight board directive to house young adults in separate facilities or units from older adults, even as the DOC successfully implemented new “Raise the Age” standards for adolescents.
Beginning in 2015 — three years before the DOC moved children off Rikers and into a juvenile facility in the Bronx — the DOC began changing the way it detained and provided services to young adults between the ages of 18 and 21. The Board of Correction, the independent oversight body tasked with creating minimum standards for city jails, directed the DOC to house young adults “separate and apart” from adults over age 21.
Over the past year, however, the DOC has backed off the young adult plan by reintroducing young adults aged 19, 20 and 21 back into the general population, according to DOC statistics and statements.
On Nov. 30, there were 540 young adults between ages 19 and 21 detained in 13 jails across the city, according to DOC census data. About 26 percent — 159 young adults — are detained at the Robert N. Davoren Complex, the Rikers Island jail that used to house adolescents and now houses mostly 18-year-olds. The majority of detained 18-year-olds are housed separately to more easily meet standards developed by a 2015 federal consent decree to ensure more humane treatment of 16- to 18-year-olds in city jails.
The DOC’s latest deadline to develop and implement a plan for the hundreds of other young adults in general population facilities is Jan. 9, 2019, but the DOC has specifically asked to change the young adult housing rule.
"The DOC doesn't have the same commitment to young people anymore and that's a real shame because what they were doing was working," said Bryanne Hamill a retired New York Family Court Judge and a member of the Board of Correction. "What the DOC is saying and what they are doing are two different things.”
The Board of Correction first announced the young adult plan directive in September 2015. In January 2016, the Board voted, in good faith, to give the DOC a six-month extension to gradually move young adults between 18 and 21 into facilities separate from older adults. It was the first of several variances that enabled the DOC to gradually implement the plan without falling out of compliance.
Then-DOC Commissioner Joseph Ponte embraced the measure and the DOC began moving young adults into separate housing at the George Motchan Detention Center (GMDC).
“We strongly believe that the 18- to 21-year-old brain is about the same” as a juvenile, Ponte told The Associated Press in Sept. 2015. “I’m very confident that this model will work well for us in New York.”
By January 2018, however, the DOC announced it would close the GMDC in September and move young adults back into facilities with adults of all ages.
Even before the announcement, the DOC had begun moving young adults from separate facilities and units and placing them back into the general population, but the closure announcement was a clear indication of the DOC’s rejection of the board’s directive, Hamill said.
"That to me was a concrete action that demonstrated the commissioner was not committed to the young adult plan,” she said. “Things were going very well. They were on track and they were making progress, but there was a management failure that resulted in some violence that seemed to be the impetus to slow down and reverse."
After young adults attacked a correction officer at the GMDC, the DOC overcorrected and began moving young adults back into general population, Hamill said. The DOC contends that the young adult plan obstructed it from transferring violent or rival young adults into different facilities.
Despite that seeming rejection, the Board of Correction issued another waiver in July to extend the date by which the DOC had to implement the requirement that inmates aged 19-21 be housed separately from inmates over the age of 21.
At the Board’s Oct. 9 public meeting, their Executive Director Martha King said that, as of Oct. 1, the DOC housed 36 percent of young adults in young adult housing, according to the meeting minutes — down from 60 to 70 percent in past years, Hamill said.
The recent census numbers masked the disparity between the number of 18-year-olds in separate housing and the number of 19-, 20- and 21-year-olds housed “separate and apart” from older adults. While 93 percent of 18-year-olds were in separate housing, just 27 percent of 19- to 21-year-olds were separated as of Oct. 1, King said, according to the meeting minutes posted on the city website.
The Board of Correction has repeatedly issued variances to enable the DOC to catch up to the minimum standard. The most recent variance, issued Oct. 9, allows the DOC to house young adults ages 19-21 with people over the age of 21 for three months until Jan. 9, 2019. In the meantime, the DOC is required to provide a monthly census of which housing units and jails house 18 to 21 year olds and “provide the board with a monthly progress report on its implementation of the Young Adult Plan.”
The Board of Correction addressed a previous variance made in July during that October meeting.
“Because the board remains committed to the vision of the young adult plan, it voted in July 2018 to grant a three-month variance instead of the requested six months, to assess DOC’s progress towards its stated goal to have 60 percent of young adults housed in young adult housing at RNDC, and to review a new plan to house ‘substantially all’ young adults in young adult housing,” King said, according to the meeting minutes. “The department has sought and the board has repeatedly granted a variance on this requirement for the past few years.”
Hamill said that the DOC began screening young adults out of the young adult facilities by asking them when they entered jail if they wanted to go to school, to which they have a legal right through age 21. Most young adults who declined to attend school in jail were transferred to general population adult facilities, she said.
“The best shot is working with young people who have a chance to turn their lives around with early intervention,” Hamill said.
A DOC spokesman disputed the sweep of Hamill’s statement and said placement of young adults is done on a case-by-case basis. The DOC also pointed to various services and programs offered to all adults in custody, regardless of age. The DOC offers five hours of daily programs for all individuals in custody with a goal of preventing idleness, which increases the potential for violence.
Over the past year, violence among young adults has decreased, according to DOC statistics. Assaults on staff have decreased from 283 in 2017 to 256 as of Dec. 3, slashings have decreased from 69 in 2017 to 42 as of Dec. 3 and fights have decreased from 1920 in 2017 to 1707 as of Dec. 3.
A growing number of municipalities have implemented their own young adult jails and units to address the mental, emotional and social development of offenders and defendants between 18 and 25. South Carolina, Connecticut and Massachusetts’ Middlesex County are among the states and counties that have partnered with the Vera Institute for Justice to develop young adult jails. The DOC has also worked with the Vera Institute and is awaiting results of a few studies, a DOC spokesman said.
“As every parent knows, and neuroscience now shows, young adults in this age group are still developing in important ways,” the Vera Institute for Justice wrote in a blog post on its website. “They are forming their identity, learning to better manage their emotions and impulses, and preparing for their life goals. But prison presents an unnatural social context which creates challenges for young adults to achieve these key developmental milestones. Instead, young adults in prison too often are left sitting in their cells with little to no opportunity to learn from past experiences, cope with underlying trauma, engage in meaningful accountability, and prepare for their future.
Legal Aid’s Adolescent Intervention and Diversion Team Director Nancy Ginsburg said the evolving approach to addressing young adults in the criminal justice system reflects a movement common in other fields.
“This is a larger conversation about how young adults are managed throughout all systems … I think it’s bigger than the criminal justice system,” Ginsburg said. “Is it appropriate to send an 18- or 19-year-old to an adult shelter? Arguably not. There’s a lot of conversation in the medical field about whether or not mental health provisions and pediatrics should be moved to that age.”
The DOC has implemented various Board of Correction reforms, including eliminating the use of solitary confinement for young adults, and said it is working to house young adult inmates and detainees in age-appropriate housing according to classification and risk assessments.
In a statement, DOC Commissioner Cynthia Brann said she disagrees with the Board’s “one-size-fits-all” approach to detaining young people in separate facilities or units.
“We agree with the board that there is a great benefit to providing services based on a population’s specific needs, and that’s crucial to our approach to housing,” Brann said. “18-21 year-olds do not all have the same needs so we can’t address them all the same way.”
“Keeping young adults separated from all other populations can be beneficial in many cases. We remain committed to doing this as best as we can,” Brann continued. “But we’ve also seen positive results when mixing them with older individuals who have similar experiences or can provide a mentoring relationship. This is especially beneficial for young adults with mental health designations and those reluctant to participate in programming when only surrounded by their peers.”
This article is Part Four in a series about young adults detained on Rikers Island and the implementation of the Raise the Age law.