New database shines light on young adults in NYC jails

The entrance to Rikers Island.  Eagle  photo by David Brand

The entrance to Rikers Island. Eagle photo by David Brand

By David Brand

The independent body overseeing the Department of Correction has unveiled a new online database that publicizes statistics, outcomes and services for young adults in New York City jails, the majority of them on Rikers Island. It’s the first tool of its kind that focuses on detainees under age 22.

The database created by the Board of Correction, which is tasked with creating minimum standards for city jails, indicates that the DOC has made progress toward upholding a directive to house young adults “separate and apart” from older detainees. At the same time, the tool highlights deficiencies in the number of young adults who are able to attend education programs and receive mental health treatment — primarily due to jail staff failing to take them to appointments.

The initiative is the latest effort by the Board of Correction to ensure young adults are housed away from older detainees and that detainees 21 and younger are treated with consideration for their brain development.

“Since 2015, Board of Correction regulations have affirmed the unique developmental needs of young adults and sought to minimize the adverse effects of incarceration on the health and mental health of young adults in the City’s jails,” said Victor St. John, the Board of Correction’s director of research and analysis. 

“While the Board recognizes the Department’s renewed commitment to young adults, more must be done to increase young adults’ access to age-appropriate housing, programming, education, healthcare and trained staff,” St. John added.

The daily average population of young adults between 18 and 21 in city jails has decreased from 1,334 in 2014 to 744 in 2018, mirroring an overall decrease in the city’s incarcerated population over that time period.

The Board’s database indicates that the DOC has moved toward upholding a 2015 directive to house young adults “separate and apart” from detainees 22 and older since late 2018.

As of June 2019, 68 percent of young adults in DOC custody were housed in separate facilities, compared to just 32 percent in September 2018, according to the Board’s database. 

Nevertheless, the most recent percentage is still lower than the 2016 rate of 77 percent of young adult detainees housed in separate facilities. The Board has issued several variances giving the DOC more time to comply with the housing directive since 2015.

In 2016, the DOC introduced its own “Young Adult Plan,” which included the goals of removing all young adults from punitive segregation, housing them in separate facilities from older adults and providing at least five hours of programming per day.

“We strongly believe that the 18- to 21-year-old brain is about the same” as a juvenile, then-DOC Commissioner Joseph Ponte told The Associated Press in 2015. “I’m very confident that this model will work well for us in New York.”

DOC moved the vast majority of 18-year-olds into separate units to comply with a federal consent decree, but did not immediately uphold the Board’s directive for detainees between ages 19 and 21. 

The DOC did, however, gradually move most 19-to-21-year-olds into separate facilities before changing course in 2017 and 2018. The city re-introduced young adults into the general population and even closed the George Motchan Detention Center, the Rikers Island jail that had housed people 21 and under. The DOC said in December that the Young Adult Plan impeded the safety of detainees and staff because it prevented the department from transferring violent offenders or rival young adults into different facilities.

By October 1, 2018, just 27 percent of 19- to 21-year-olds were housed separate and apart at another Rikers Island jail, the Robert N. Davoren Complex (RNDC), according to Board of Correction meeting minutes posted on the city website. The Board told the Eagle in December that they were frustrated with the DOC’s housing delays in spite of the directive.

The situation began to change earlier this year, and by late January, 38.7 percent of 19- to 21- years olds (201 of the 520) in DOC custody were housed separate and apart from older adults at RNDC, according to a DOC census. This progress has continued, according to the Board’s database.

Image via the Board of Correction

Image via the Board of Correction

The database also tracks progress — and deficiencies — in other areas, including the use of punitive segregation, school attendance and access to mental health services for young adults.

The Board banned the DOC from placing young adults in punitive segregation (PSEG) in 2015 and there have been no young adults placed in PSEG — 23 hours spent in a cell as punishment — since October 2016. 

The DOC also reduced the number of young adults placed in alternatives to PSEG,  according to the Board’s database. And the number of young adults in alternatives to PSEG has remained relatively consistent — between 52 to 66 young adults on average — since January 2016.

Though educational enrollment has increased, daily school attendance has decreased over the past year. State law mandates that the DOC and Department of Education offer at least three hours of school per weekday to detainees between ages 18 and 21.

The rate of young adults receiving mental health services also decreased significantly from 70 percent in January 2018 to 54 percent in December 2018. 

The DOC’s failure to bring detainees to their mental health appointments was the main reason for the decrease, according to the database.  

The DOC did not immediately provide comment as it reviewed the database. This story will be updated to include DOC’s response.