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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 under strict conditions–passing through metal detectors every time they walk through the hallways, 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 too. In fact, all 85 of the kids now at Goshen were originally sentenced to “limited secure” jails.

Traditionally, only teens tried as adults for violent crimes, or who couldn’t be managed at less structured facilities, were sent to Goshen. But last July, the 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. OCFS didn’t change the physical layout of the center, or its locks–the hardware of Goshen is still set up for maximum-security criminals.

In court papers OCFS filed this year, the agency answered that the true difference between “secure” and “limited secure” facilities lies not in locks or metal detectors, but in the services that the teens get. Louis Mann, deputy commissioner for rehabilitative services at OCFS, wrote in an affadavit that the “limited secure” kids received a more academically oriented school program than the secure kids, who received more vocational training; the “limited secure” residents are also permitted to leave their rooms more often.

For the kids, the distinction doesn’t carry much weight.

“It’s like a jail in here,” said James B. to 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 said 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. Their next court date to discuss possible settlement terms will be this Thursday. Henry Weintraub, the Legal Aid attorney handling the case, said that one of the main sticking points is whether the residents will still be locked in their rooms at night.

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