Directly to Jail

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Surrounded by a 20-foot-high razor wire fence, the two-story Goshen Secure Center in upstate Orange County has been used as a maximum-security prison for teenage boys since it was built in the 1960s. The teens who get sent there live a grim life, passing through metal detectors regularly, getting strip-searched before and after family or court visits, and being kept under lock and key at night.

It’s a system designed to keep the toughest 13- to 18-year-olds under control. The problem is, with a shortage of space in the prison system, kids who’ve committed crimes like drug-dealing or fist-fighting but aren’t considered a security risk are now getting sent there. In fact, all 85 of the kids now at Goshen were originally sentenced to “limited secure” jails.

Last July, the New York State Office of Children and Family Services decided to “convert” the jail into a limited secure facility. “We needed more beds at the limited secure level,” said Jim Cotta, an Office of Children and Family Services spokesperson. “We change our beds as we need to.”

The problem, according to lawyers for the kids, is that the prison still feels like Alcatraz. In its conversion, OCFS didn’t change the layout of the center or its locks–Goshen’s hardware is still set up for maximum-security criminals.

Louis Mann, deputy commissioner for rehabilitative services at OCFS, asserted in an affidavit that the changes at Goshen include a more academically oriented school program and fewer restrictions.

But for the kids, the distinction doesn’t carry much weight. “It’s like a jail in here,” James B. told his lawyer. “You got lots more barbed wire…These windows have bars and things across them so you can see out less.”

James B. and Melvin Anderson, another resident transferred to Goshen, both report that one of the biggest differences is that they are locked in their rooms all night, so that they can’t go to the bathroom without calling a guard.

This February, Legal Aid’s Juvenile Rights Division, which represents delinquents in Family Court, filed suit to force OCFS to move the kids from Goshen to more traditional limited secure centers.

Henry Weintraub, the Legal Aid attorney handling the case, says that one of the main sticking points is whether the residents will still be locked in their rooms at night. Settlement discussions are ongoing.