More Young Adults Are Being Housed ‘Separate and Apart’ From Older Detainees in the City Jail System

The entrance to Rikers Island in East Elmhurst.  Eagle  photo by David Brand

The entrance to Rikers Island in East Elmhurst. Eagle photo by David Brand

By David Brand

The number of detainees aged 19 to 21 being housed “separate and apart” from older adults in the city jail system has increased over the past three months in accordance with a 2015 directive from the Board of Correction (BOC) — though hundreds of 19- to 21- year olds are still housed with older adults.

On Jan. 25, 38.7 percent of 19- to 21- years olds (201 of the 520)* in Department of Correction custody were housed separate and apart from older adults at the Robert N. Davoren Complex (RNDC), according to a DOC census.

That marks an increase from Oct. 1, when just 27 percent of 19- to 21-year-olds were at RNDC, according to BOC meeting minutes posted on the city website. The Board of Correction is the independent oversight body tasked with creating minimum standards for city jails.

On Oct. 1, 93 percent of 18-year-olds were in separate housing, mostly at RNDC, the Rikers Island jail that used to house adolescents before they were moved to a juvenile facility in the Bronx in October as part of the state’s Raise the Age law.

One reason for the increase is that all young adults who are arrested and detained in DOC custody are now processed through RNDC.

The change, which the DOC explained in an October letter to the BOC, became official Jan. 3 and enables young adults aged 18 to 21 to more easily interact with young adult specialists, the DOC said.

The DOC had begun housing young adults separately from 2015 to 2017, but moved away from the young adult plan by reintroducing inmates aged 19, 20 and 21 back into the general population over the past year.

At a Jan. 9 meeting, the Board issued a five-week variance the latest in a series of variances dating back to January 2016 — to enable the DOC to continue housing young adults in the same units as older adults without falling out of compliance while the two bodies work on a young adult housing plan ahead of the next meeting in February.

Young adults had been detained in a unique facility at the George Motchan Detention Center (GMDC), which the city closed last year.

GMDC featured Peace and Yes Centers, which included a music studio, occupational training and other education and development programs for young people.

DOC said it is establishing Peace and Yes Centers at RNDC and the centers will likely be completed at the end of February.

Criminal justice reform advocates say young adults should be housed in unique facilities or units to better meet their development needs.

“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.

Former DOC Commissioner Joseph Ponte embraced the measure and the DOC began moving young adults into separate housing at the 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.”

In November, current DOC Commissioner Cynthia Brann said she disagrees with a “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 in a statement to the Eagle. “18-21 year-olds do not all have the same needs so we can’t address them all the same way.”

Violence has decreased inside city jails since the DOC began putting more young adults back into general population settings, the DOC said.

“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 said. “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.”

*A previous version of this story misstated the percentage of young adults housed “separate and apart” from older adults at RNDC on Jan. 25. There were 222 total young adults detained at RNDC, but only 201 of them were detained “separate and apart.”