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The Lost Boys of Tryon

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A 15-year-old in his cell.  

Elsewhere in the math class, a 15-year-old hunches over a worksheet. Bordwell describes the boy as “big-time ADHD,” but says his focus has improved since he started taking meds. He’s five grades behind, but today he sits calmly, working on division problems. A YDA leans over his desk to help, and the boy appears to appreciate the attention. But like many of the residents here, he is under no illusions that he’s receiving a decent education. “It’s not a school right here,” he says. “I don’t call it a school.” What do you call it? “A place to hang out.”

As it turns out, he’s right: The school that operates at Tryon is in fact not a school. The State Education Department does not oversee it; there is no requirement that the classes here meet the usual standards. One of the best ways to reduce the number of juvenile delinquents entering the adult prison system is to educate them. It’s the sort of investment that saves millions down the road: Every kid who leaves Tryon and ends up in the adult prison system will ultimately cost taxpayers more than $50,000 a year for every year he’s locked up. And yet this school—unlike the high schools on Rikers Island—is not even accredited.

Several years ago, the education scene at Tryon was even bleaker. Back then, some teachers showed movies—cartoons, karate flicks, the Three Stooges—so often that the YDAs used to call this Blockbuster High. “The teachers would put them right in, play it the whole period. End of class: ‘Okay, that’s it, see you tomorrow,’ ” says Jeff Batchelder, a former YDA who left in 2008. “Next day, same thing. Same thing. Same thing.”

Whether Tryon is truly the worst juvenile prison in the state is an open question. More likely, it is just the most notorious example of how tragically flawed the whole system is. Last year, the governor’s task force on juvenile justice found similar abuses throughout the state. Ever since Commissioner Carrión took charge, she’s been trying to shrink the system. She’s closed nine facilities already, and Tryon is next on her list. “All the things that are wrong with the juvenile justice system are right in there,” she says. “I think it is a symbol of the old way of doing things.”

In some ways, the budget crisis only helps her cause. It costs New York’s taxpayers $210,000 a year to incarcerate one kid in a juvenile prison, and, by at least one measure, this program has been a colossal failure: 89 percent of boys released from the state’s juvenile prisons are re-arrested by the time they’re 28.

Once Tryon is shut down—the proposed closing date is January 2011—New York would still have five maximum-security facilities for kids and six limited-secure ones. Carrión’s long-term plan is to keep closing limited-secure facilities, despite opposition from unions fighting to hold onto as many jobs as possible. “I will no longer export black and brown kids from New York City to support upstate economies,” she says.

But closing the prisons won’t make the problem of troubled youth go away. To make her case, Carrión points to the latest research, which suggests that kids actually fare better in smaller facilities closer to home. The contention is that kids who remain with their families, or at least close to home, are better able to maintain the sorts of relationships—with, say, a supportive aunt or a caring parent—that will help them stay out of trouble once they leave the criminal-justice system. In 2007, New York City set up an alternative-to-prison program that incorporates family therapy. While it has succeeded in reducing the rate of recidivism, 35 percent of the kids were re-arrested or violated probation and ultimately got locked up anyway. And many kids never qualified for the program in the first place because they were too mentally ill or had no family members willing to participate. Last week, the mayor announced plans to expand the city’s efforts, but still the question remains: What will happen to all the truly troubled kids who have no place to go?

For now, they continue to languish. At 1:30 p.m. on this day inside Tryon, the boys lounge around the rec room at Briarwood Cottage, killing time. Two play Ping-Pong; one reads a book; another sleeps on the sofa; two play Xbox; and two watch America’s Funniest Home Videos. The only flicker of excitement comes when Little Man irritates a 15-year-old so much that the older boy stomps on his foot, prompting a chase through the rec room. A half-hour passes and all that’s really changed is the program on the TV. Four boys and two YDAs stare at the screen. The calendar posted in the back of the room has just one event written in for the month: the day that Tryon’s youngest inmate turns 13.


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