The 14-year-old next door to him is called Bills by his friends because he resembles the Bill Cosby character “Little Bill” on the Nickelodeon cartoon. He’s a devotee of urban-lit and just finished The Coldest Winter Ever by Sister Souljah. At the other end of the hall is a 17-year-old from Flatbush with tattoos on the top of both hands—one says NO LOVE, the other CITY. He’ll be released in a few days when he turns 18.
New York State oversees three types of residential facilities for kids convicted of crimes. Those who commit the most serious violent crimes and are tried as adults are sent to “secure” facilities, the rough equivalent of a maximum-security prison. On the other end of the spectrum are the “non-secure” facilities, which house the lowest-level offenders and have no fences. Tryon is in the middle: a “limited secure” facility, with locks on the doors and a fence topped with two loops of razor wire. Of the boys now at Tryon, almost all are locked up for misdemeanors or low-level felonies. Most committed property offenses, like robbery or petty larceny. One sixth are imprisoned for assault or attempted assault. And roughly a third are here because they violated probation, either by getting re-arrested or disobeying rules, like no skipping school or staying out past curfew.
To the kids from New York City, Tryon feels like Siberia. “It’s like being in outer space,” says a teenager from Linden Boulevard. The sun disappears by mid-afternoon, and the snow never seems to stop. To get from their cottage to the school building, the boys pull on hats, gloves, and boots, then walk a quarter-mile through howling wind. From their bedrooms, they can hear guns firing—not the sound of a drive-by but of deer hunters. The kids talk to their families on the telephone, but many of them never get a visit. It’s difficult to get here without a car, and the trip by train and cab from New York City can run close to $200 round trip, an impossibly steep price for most parents.
Twenty rooms line this corridor in Briarwood Cottage, each roughly 12 feet by 7˝ feet. The bed and desk are bolted down; steel mesh covers the windows. Rules dictate everything: how many books you can have (ten); where you must keep your underwear (on the top shelf); how many photo albums you can have (one). The boys don’t wear prison greens, but they do wear uniforms: red polo shirts with khaki pants. Nearly 85 percent of the kids in the state’s juvenile prisons are African-American or Latino. On this unit, most of the boys are African-American, two are Caribbean, and none is white.
The youngest kid in all of Tryon is Little Man, who says he was sent here for breaking into a house. Little Man is the sort of resident who likes nothing more than to provoke everybody. When he meets the agency’s deputy commissioner, he says, “How did you get that scar on your forehead?” To a staff member he thinks is gay, he says, “You a tootsie! Do you know what’s a tootsie?” One might assume that because of his size he’d get beaten up all the time, but the opposite is true. “He picks on everybody else,” says another boy on the unit. “If he doesn’t get his way, he might hit one of us.”
At the end of the hall, the boy with the nickname Bills sits at his desk, scribbling rap lyrics into a composition notebook. Asked how he got to Tryon, the boy explains that he was sent here after running away from a private facility in Westchester County. He and a friend had been skimming the Post one day, he says, looking for news from Brooklyn, when his friend pointed to a name in the police blotter.
“Isn’t this your cousin?”
A 17-year-old boy was fatally shot not far from his Gowanus Houses home early yesterday…
Bills dropped the paper and stood up. “My heart was beating. I told a staff, ‘Can you call an AOD [administrator on duty]?’ He said, ‘For what?’ I said, ‘My cousin just died.’ That’s when he started laughing,” he recalls. “I walked out of the gate … I don’t know where I was going: I was just walking.” Seven weeks later, he was sent to Tryon.
In the year that he’s been locked up, Bills says he has also lost a brother (to a heart problem) and a friend (shot at a party). On the small calendar he keeps on his desk, he marks each passing day as well as his next court date, which is a week away. He hopes to persuade the judge to send him home. “I wrote a letter,” he says, searching through the papers on his desk. Once he finds it, he starts to read aloud: