Two hundred miles from home, a 12-year-old boy wakes up in a tiny locked room. Outside, eight inches of snow hides everything but the sixteen-foot fence that surrounds him. The boy is from Brooklyn, but he’s serving time as a juvenile delinquent here in Fulton County, an hour northwest of Albany. The room next door belongs to a 14-year-old, also from Brooklyn. Down the hall are more kids from New York City: Harlem, Brownsville, Flatbush. Opened in 1966, this place used to be called the Tryon School for Boys; it’s best known as the reform school where 12-year-old Mike Tyson first learned how to box. Today the official name is Tryon Residential Center, but that’s a euphemism: Tryon has become a penal colony for kids.
Rumors of Tryon’s closing have been circulating for months, though it’s hard to pinpoint exactly when the campaign to shut down the prison began. Perhaps it started in 2007, when Gladys Carrión, the newly appointed commissioner overseeing the state’s juvenile prisons, visited for the first time and found the place so depressing that afterward she sat in her car in the parking lot and cried. Or maybe it was in 2008, when the video of an aide punching a teenage resident in the face made the rounds of the agency’s headquarters. Or maybe it started on the morning of Saturday, November 18, 2006, when Darryl Thompson took his last breath.
At Tryon, the boys live together in one-story buildings painted the color of lima beans, each with a name that evokes an Adirondack summer camp: Briarwood Cottage, Elmwood Cottage, Maplewood Cottage. Darryl Thompson, a 15-year-old from the Bronx, lived in Briarwood. That Saturday began like any other: Thompson and four other boys were brushing their teeth in the bathroom. The residents here are not allowed to talk during their morning routine, but on that day it was harder than usual to keep quiet. The boys had been on lockdown for two days—prohibited from playing basketball or doing much else—and it looked like lockdown would continue through the weekend. “Am I going to get my rec?” Thompson asked. “You guys won’t give us our rec!”
An aide charged into the bathroom. Whether he pushed Thompson first or vice versa is a matter of dispute, but there’s no question what happened next: Two aides pinned the teenager facedown on the tile floor, while a third man cuffed his wrists behind his back. Thompson stopped breathing, left the prison in an ambulance, and never came back. The medical examiner ruled his death a homicide, but a grand jury declined to indict any of the employees.
Last summer, the U.S. Department of Justice threatened to take over New York’s juvenile-prison system after investigating Tryon and two other state facilities and uncovering a litany of abuses: employees restraining kids so often and with so much force that kids had endured concussions, broken teeth, and broken bones. Governor Paterson convened a task force to investigate, and last week proposed a plan to shut down Tryon’s boys’ facility. Mayor Bloomberg has pledged to send far fewer juvenile delinquents to the state’s youth prisons. Even Commissioner Carrión admits the system is a complete disaster.
Despite all this scrutiny, three years after Darryl Thompson’s death, there are still teenagers confined at Tryon. One morning in mid-December, eight boys wake up on Thompson’s old unit in Briarwood Cottage. At 7 a.m., their tiny cinder-block rooms are unlocked and they trudge into the bathroom, eyes half-shut, shorts drooping past their knees. One boy leans toward the mirror, toothbrush in hand. Another rubs his face with a washcloth. An aide stands in the doorway, watching. On this morning, no one speaks. There’s no joking, no arguing, no cursing, no complaining about rec time. The bathroom is so quiet that when one boy steps into a stall to urinate, the splash of his piss reverberates through the room.
The road to Tryon curves off County Highway 107 in Perth, stretches up a hill, then splits in two. To the right is the prison for boys, to the left is the newer facility, a penal complex for girls that opened in 1987. Kids arrive here in state vans, bouncing along windy roads, past farmhouses and silos, weighed down by shackles on their legs and cuffs on their wrists. Nearly two thirds come from New York City. More than half have been diagnosed with a mental illness. There used to be 325 boys confined at Tryon, but the population has been declining for a while now, and on this day there are only 46.
The residents of Briarwood Cottage include a 12-year-old from East New York who has five Bibles in his room and boasts impressive chess skills. At four-foot-eleven and 108 pounds, he’s the smallest kid here and has a fierce case of Little Man Syndrome. Little Man is always walking around with his chest puffed up as if to discourage anyone who might think of attacking him. (New York’s access to the prison was granted on the condition that none of the residents’ real names be revealed.)