Of all the job’s challenges, perhaps the most difficult one is not reacting when the kids lash out. The boys tell the YDAs to “suck my dick” so often that when employees have to fill out paperwork, they use an abbreviation: SMD. “They take it very personally, and believe me, the kids know they take it personally,” says Joseph Impicciatore, Tryon’s director. “Kids like to mess with someone who reacts.” A veteran YDA explains: “You have 110-pound kids coming up in your face, telling you they’re going to fuck you up. And you can’t do anything. So you go in every day to put up with abuse. And some people can’t take it.”
While some YDAs embrace the role of helping kids, for years the main criterion for hiring appeared to be size—an ability to wrestle a kid to the ground—which, not surprisingly, did not always yield the best candidates for the job. Stories of excessive force crop up all over the system. In 1994, two staff members at a non-secure facility in Delaware County restrained a 15-year-old named Jamar Griffiths, compressing his chest so hard that they suffocated him. Two years later, employees at a limited-secure facility near Ithaca restrained Lee Jackson, 14, with such force that they left him paralyzed and in a coma. He died seven years later.
At Tryon’s sister facility next door, reports of sexual abuse have leaked out in recent years. In 2002, a 41-year-old YDA named Curtis Payne raped a 19-year-old he was supposed to be mentoring. The attack resulted in the girl’s getting pregnant and later having an abortion. Payne was sentenced to six months in jail.
When abuses by staff occur, it’s typically during the course of—or immediately after—a restraint. On the evening of March 23, 2008, inside Maplewood Cottage, a surveillance camera caught a scene that’s played out too often at Tryon: A YDA helped break up a fight between two teenagers. Afterward, while seated on a chair in handcuffs, one of the kids spit at the YDA. The adult should have walked away. Instead, he clocked the 17-year-old in the face.
The boys seem like adolescent zombies, staggering around in a pharmaceutical haze. Some can barely open their eyes.
Occasionally, a kid will turn the tables and attack one of his keepers. Tryon’s most infamous resident-on-staff assault took place inside the mental-health unit in the summer of 2008, when a 60-year-old YDA named Charles Loftly was on duty. A teenager tricked Loftly into opening the door to his room, grabbed a piece of wood from his desk, and cracked him on the back of the head. Five weeks later, Loftly had a stroke and slipped into a coma. He died shortly after. According to the coroner, his death had nothing to do with the attack. Within the walls of Tryon, however, everyone blames the job.
Despite all the horror stories of violence and injuries, what you notice most when you step inside Tryon is something else: rampant indifference. This isn’t to say that the staff doesn’t care about the kids—some of them care very much—but they are working within a system that has strayed so far from its original mission that today its primary objective appears to have little to do with reforming the kids and everything to do with maintaining control of them.
The boys eat their meals in a cafeteria that, at first glance, appears to resemble the lunchroom at any high school. They take a tray, go through the food line, sit down. But the scene takes on a surreal quality as the boys settle into their assigned seats, two boys to a table, each at opposite ends. It’s a strange sight: eight boys, each eating alone, staring straight ahead or down at their tray, talking to no one. Separating the boys decreases the odds that a fight will erupt, and as a YDA explains, “On the schedule, they have twenty minutes, and if they talk, they don’t have time to eat.”
At 11 a.m., the boys of Briarwood Cottage file into Deborah Bordwell’s math class. It would seem to make no sense to have these eight kids, ages 12 to 17, in the same classroom, but it’s easier to manage Tryon if all the residents of a cottage stick together all day. The teacher distributes worksheets, since it’s nearly impossible to teach math to a group with such wildly different abilities. The oldest boy in the room, a 17-year-old from Brooklyn, sits apart from everybody else, head down on his desk, eyes shut. The teacher doesn’t even bother giving him a worksheet.
Michael Bouchard, who oversees Briarwood Cottage, describes him as a “mental-health kid.” “There’s absolutely nothing that I can do with him,” Bouchard says. Earlier in the morning, while the other kids attended English class, he slept on a couch in a room across the hall. Why did he not have to go to English class? Turns out he’s not allowed near the English teacher. “He threw a book at him one day,” explains a YDA. Asked about his situation, the teenager says that he’s getting out in a few days. “I’m going down to Florida, staying at my sister’s,” he says. Then he puts his head back down.