Chino Hardin calls her time at Spofford Juvenile Center “one of the most degrading experiences of my life.” She landed there at age 13 after getting into a fight with a classmate at her Brooklyn junior high. The other kid’s parents pressed charges, and police arrested the diminutive Hardin for assault. In detention, she recalls, “I had to wear a uniform all the time, down to my socks and underwear. I was locked up and searched and shackled by the ankles for trips to court.” After a month and three days, a judge released her to her parents, with no mentoring, no counseling, a deep sense of distrust and–as always in her East Flatbush neighborhood–nothing to do after school. “They’re always talking about ‘threat to society,'” she says, “but the only people who are truly hurt are the ones being locked up. You have to close up inside to survive something like that.”
By age 16, Hardin had landed at Rikers Island on a grand larceny charge. “If weed is a gateway drug,” she says, “Spofford is a gateway to prison. You get locked up for shoplifting and you get exposed to kids who’ve done all kinds of things.”
Now 20, Hardin has emerged as a leader within a grassroots effort to stop the city’s planned expansion of juvenile detention centers. The No More Jail Beds campaign has brought together some of the city’s most vocal youth and criminal justice reform organizations, from the Prison Moratorium Project to Brooklyn-based Sister Outsider, an empowerment project for young women of color that Hardin now directs. The campaign has its roots in an effort by Bronx-based Youth Force in the mid-1990s to close down Spofford, then the city’s only pre-trial youth detention center, plagued by cockroaches and an abusive staff. Finally shut in August 1998 after two new detention facilities were built–Crossroads in Brownsville and Horizon in Mott Haven–the notorious facility was given a paint job and reopened as Bridges in late 1999, bringing total secure detention slots to 398, the highest in decades. Now the city is in the final phases of a plan to further expand juvenile detention capacity by adding 100 beds to each of the new facilities, at a cost of $64.6 million. Only then does the city intend to close Spofford for good.
Old-timers will recall that when Rudy Giuliani first entered City Hall in 1994, he cut public school funds by more than $150 million, and youth services by another $19 million–including cuts to dozens of vital community organizations that have never been fully restored. Now, as he exits office and the city again faces a $1 billion deficit–expected to grow to $3.5 billion by 2003–the young activists of No More Jail Beds are demanding that the budget not be balanced on their backs this time. Instead, they’re making some cost-cutting suggestions of their own, namely that $64.6 million.
The Department of Juvenile Justice originally sought the jail bed expansion to cope with the exploding number of 10-to-15-year-olds in detention in the late 1990s. From 1997 to 1999, the number of detainees on an average day jumped from 268 to 345, despite a 30 percent drop from 1994 to 1999 in under-18 arrests. DJJ spokesperson Sarina Roffe says her department has little control over those numbers–“I can’t tell you why a judge puts a kid into custody”–and attributes the rising daily census to longer stays, not more admissions. But the city has more discretion than Roffe lets on: Judges often make “open remands,” leaving the choice between lockup and a group home to DJJ. Advocates say that building more jail beds would only encourage DJJ to fill them. “We want the city to close Spofford and halt the expansion,” says Mishi Faruqee, director of the Correctional Association of New York’s Juvenile Justice Project, “and instead spend the money to create alternatives.”
By most accounts, the city has done little of that in recent years. In 1993, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a juvenile detention reform powerhouse, came to the Big Apple to help DJJ revise its screening methods, in order to lower rates of youth detention. But Casey ultimately pulled out of the experiment in frustration, says senior associate Bart Lubow: “There was no will to do real detention reform.”
This year, however, as the young activists strategize, the moment could be ripe for change: For police chief, Mike Bloomberg tapped Ray Kelly, the former commissioner known for embracing prevention-oriented community policing tactics; several longtime advocates of criminal justice reform, including Al Vann and Charles Barron, now hold seats in the City Council; and a slight change in the numbers will make it harder for the city to justify expanding its detention program. In 2001, the average daily population in detention centers finally dropped to match arrests, to 357 from 379 the year before.
A recent court case has already forced the city to change its approach to juvenile delinquents. According to state law, teens may be sent to detention only if they pose a flight risk or are deemed likely to commit another crime, but a suit filed by the Legal Aid Society in 1998 established that this rule is regularly broken in New York City, due in large part to a drastic shortage of “non-secure” beds in group homes. By this summer, pressure generated by the suit, which culminated in a settlement with the Giuliani administration in December, will have doubled the number of group home beds, to 152 from 75 when the suit was filed. (Still, in 2001, despite significant group home growth, DJJ spent three times more on secure detention than on non-secure.) While Faruqee says she and her colleagues prefer community-based alternatives to incarceration, she admits, “Anything is better than detention.”
The agreement can only bolster the Jail Beds campaign. “There is less of a need for secure space if you’re subtracting the children who shouldn’t be there,” says Nancy Rosenbloom, an attorney for Legal Aid. “There’s no reason to believe the city needs 200 more jail beds at this time.”
As of late December, Mayor Bloomberg had yet to take a position on the proposed construction, but even the outgoing DJJ staff was hedging. “I don’t see [the expansion proposal] going anywhere,” Roffe told City Limits.
The campaign isn’t taking any chances, though. With help from law students at New York University, the young activists are surveying Family Court orders to document the reasons kids get sent to detention, from racial bias to judges’ failure to seek alternatives. They’ve also secured support from the community boards in Brooklyn and the Bronx that host the two new high-security centers. Community Board 16 in Brownsville is particularly distressed that the new Crossroads beds would be built right on top of the facility’s only recreation area. And at least some new City Council members are on board. Jose Marco Serrano, whose district includes Horizon, says he opposes any expansion. However, Councilmember Tracy Boyland, whose district hosts Crossroads, is said to be lukewarm at best. She did not return numerous calls for comment.
Of course, the larger challenge will be turning around the debate over juvenile justice–to get to a point, says Hardin, “where nonviolent offenders don’t even touch base with a juvenile detention facility, where the focus is on getting to the root of the problem, helping young people function and giving them skills.” In December, budget negotiations seemed headed in the wrong direction: Giuliani had called for cutting $660,000 in DJJ’s Community-Based Intervention program, which focuses on skills-building, counseling and prevention.
Esther Kaplan is a contributing editor at POZ, a producer at WBAI and a freelance writer based in Brooklyn.