When Gladys Carrión took charge of the state’s Office of Children and Family Services in 2007, she didn’t know much about the inner workings of the juvenile-justice system. A former Legal Services lawyer with a background in child welfare, she used to run Inwood House, a program for troubled girls in Manhattan. As she visited the prisons under her watch, she became distraught. The vast majority of these children are black and brown, says Carrión, who is Puerto Rican and grew up in the Bronx. As a person of color, I must tell you, I found that so disheartening, so sad. From where she sat, it looked like the system was doing next to nothing for the kids. Just warehousing them there, she says. Worse than that, we’re adding to the trauma with the violence and the inability to provide for their needs.
The rap sheets of the boys at Tryon don’t begin to tell the story of how deeply rooted their problems are. Many were in foster care before coming here, and almost every kid has endured some form of abuse. An employee talks about a boy who was sexually abused starting at age 6 by multiple female members of his family. And then there was the kid who was tossed into a Dumpster at age 2. Almost every resident here has a diagnosis, if not four or five: ADD, ADHD, bipolar illness, depression, PTSD, schizophrenia. Who do we incarcerate in the state of NY? Kids with serious mental-health disorders, Carrión says. I feel like I’m running a psychiatric hospital.
But unlike a psychiatric hospital, there are no psychiatrists hereor at any of the state’s juvenile prisons. (A psychiatrist working on contract visits once every two weeks.) It’s easy to pick out which kids have the most severe psychiatric problems: They’re the ones with Velcro on their sneakers instead of laces. Most have spent time in psychiatric hospitals in the past; their diagnoses include schizophrenia and personality disorders. These boys are assigned to a housing unit specifically for mentally ill kids, where they receive more-intensive services, but at this point there are so many mentally ill kids here that the mental-health unit can’t possibly accommodate them all.
The vast majority of the boys at Tryon are on psychotropic meds: Adderall, Concerta, Wellbutrin, Seroquel, Abilify, Risperdal, Remeron, the list goes on. At times, they seem like adolescent zombies, staggering around in a pharmaceutical haze. Some boys can barely open their eyes in the morning. They struggle to get out of bed. They fall asleep in class. And then, once night comes and the lights go off, they cannot sleep. This is especially true of those who have just arrived. Perhaps it’s the lack of city noise or the side effects of their meds or the stress of incarcerationbut whatever the cause, insomnia is a widespread problem, one that many get more pills to resolve.
As the number of mentally ill kids has grown, the job of caring for them has become much more difficult. In the last three years, there have been at least 55 instances of self-inflicted injuries or suicide attempts by boys at Tryon. Kids have swallowed screws, punched walls, cut their arms, drunk window-cleaning fluid, and tried to strangle themselves with everything from long underwear to a Walkman cord to a garden hose. The facility is supposed to submit an unusual incident report every time one of these incidents occurs. By now, the files at the agency’s headquarters are overflowing with tales that make Tryon sound like a madhouse. In the spring of 2008, a 16-year-old boy stripped off all his clothes during class, hoisted a chair above his head, and threatened to kill the staff and himself. Employeeswith help from the facility’s directorrestrained him three times before they finally got him into an ambulance and off to a local hospital. Eight days later, a 14-year-old boy was carted off to the same hospital after he punched out a window in his room, flung himself onto the floor, and began thrashing about, shouting, Mommy! Mommy!
The employees at Tryon who have the most contact with the kids are the Youth Division Aides, known as YDAs. Nearly all are male, most are white, and many of them are huge. YDAs spend all day, every day, with the boys, escorting them to the cafeteria, to school, to the gym, to the dentist, to court. The notion that they are, in effect, the kids’ temporary parents is not lost on them: They joke that YDA stands for Your Daddy Also. Armed with only a high-school diploma, a YDA can earn $45,000 a year plus overtime, which in this area qualifies as upper-middle-class. It’s hard to imagine working such a stressful, dangerous job and not burning out in year or two, and yet YDAs rarely quit: One third have been on the job for more than twenty years. There aren’t many other options. Most of the industry in the area has died, including the leather factories that gave nearby Gloversville its name.