Last week, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo was successful in finding more ways to reduce economic waste. His plan to revamp New York State's Juvenile System by reducing the capacity of juvenile centers by 30 percent has become a reality when he pushed it through, along with the budget.
In November of 2010, Gov. Cuomo took a tour of Tryon Residential Center and cited it as a perfect example of government waste. Tryon had been shrouded in controversy for years over its financial waste and its negative handling of juvenile prisoners. To discipline youths, staff routinely used physical force resulting in broken bones and concussions.
In his State of the State address Gov. Cuomo said that the 25 youth prisons where about 600 juveniles are incarcerated are ineffective, expensive and kept mainly to preserve jobs. It costs more than $200,000 a year to incarcerate each juvenile.
But besides the economic savings associated with the closing of these detention facilities, there is another good reason they must be shut down. It's because of their draconian nature, unleashed upon young people. Several years ago I was contacted by a writer named Anthony Davis who asked me to speak to young prisoners he taught in a creative writing class at Spofford Juvenile Center, located in the South Bronx. Like Tryon, Spofford was the focus of criticism and controversy for many years. For a variety of reasons, it became known as a place that exacerbated the problems of juvenile delinquents. But despite this, Davis thought that people who cared could make a difference in these kid's lives.
To my surprise, Spofford was just down the road from where I used to work at a radio installation shop on Bruckner Blvd in the South Bronx. The area was pretty rundown and all the buildings looked about the same until we got close to Spofford. From about a half a block away I zeroed in on an object that almost made my heart stop beating. It was a row of coiled barb wire sticking out from the top of a fence. It just hung in the air, swaying back and forth, calling itself to my attention. As we got closer I saw that the building was surrounded by heavy fences topped with rows of sharp razor wire. The windows of the building were covered with steel gates and painted in battleship gray. It reminded me of a miniature Sing Sing. What blew my mind was that it even had a mini wall that looked like a small version of the wall that surrounded the maximum security prison I once lived in. In 1985, I was sentenced to 15 years to life for a non-violent drug offense when I passed an envelope with four ounces of cocaine for $500.00.
Its entrance had enforced double doors that looked like they were bulletproof. We walked through the doors and saw a glass booth that contained two guards who controlled traffic in and out of the institution. Davis called for someone to escort us in. A beefy-looking sergeant came out and asked if he could search me. I reacted quickly and without thinking I automatically spread my legs and threw my arms against the metal detector booth. The move raised eyebrows and telegraphed the fact that I was an ex-con. The guard chuckled and said all he wanted me to do was walk through the booth, not give him a song and a dance. I looked at Davis, and we both laughed.
The escort took us in the building. To my surprise the doors had contained similar lock mechanisms to the ones on cell doors in Sing Sing. In a few minutes we entered the heart of the institution and took an elevator to the 4th floor where we walked through several more locked doors. We passed what was considered to be the library. I glanced around the room and was amazed that it looked like it had been through an institutional shakedown. In Sing Sing these shakedowns were conducted on a regular basis, which often resulted in finding knives and drugs hidden in books. Davis told me that the room had been in that condition for a while and the administration was trying to get it together. The hallways were totally empty and resembled a ghost town. It was surely a setting that taught young kids to be ready for a life in prison.
We entered the office of the director, Ms. Washington, and she told me she had read many articles about me in the newspapers and her kids would enjoy my talk. We talked for a while, and I met some of her staff and arranged for a projector to show some slides of my artwork to the kids. About 40 minutes later we were led to the auditorium. I was not prepared for what I was about to see. There, sitting in the audience, were about 50 boys and girls, 10 to 15 years old, dressed in their prison uniforms.
In front of me sat a Latino boy who appeared about eight years old. He wore braces and was maybe four feet tall. I found out later he was 12 and was doing time for assault. I tried to keep my composure, even though I was in a state of shock. I found out that most of them had first to third grade reading levels, almost the same as grown prisoners in the system I was in. I opened up my talk by showing them a 16x20 photo of me in my prison cell and told them this was the place that I had lived for the past 12 years. The little kid in the front row was amazed and asked if I did 12 straight years. I said yes, and then he dropped a bomb on me. "Did you ever get raped in there?"
All the kids in the room grew quiet in anticipation of my answer, sitting on the edge of their seats. I told them that someone had tried but they didn't succeed. They continued to ask me many questions about my life in prison. I guess they were interested because many of them would eventually go to prison when they became old enough. For some of them, cycling in and out of jails would become a way of life. It was, sadly, a routine implanted deep within their souls at an early age.
While talking I could not help but think I was standing in front of the future residents of maximum prisons like the one I languished in for 12 years. Looking at them I saw faces on kids, nothing more. Faces on kids in prison don't tell a story like faces on adults in prison. Back in Sing Sing you could look at imprisoned men and their faces told vivid tales. These kids looked so innocent, so needful for love and understanding. I prayed that I had made some sort of connection that would prevent just one of them walking the road I had taken. I left Spofford a different person. The experience had secured my need to confront my demons head on and to make a difference, not only in my life but the life of others.
Now Governor Cuomo is making a positive difference by revamping the New York State Juvenile System and saving valuable tax dollars by shutting down troubled juvenile facilities. He is on track to make New York State great again.