Teens in NYC detention centers are sleeping on the ground due to overcrowding, staff say


Teens in the city’s juvenile jails are being forced to sleep on the ground in common areas, including hallways and classrooms, due to overcrowding, according to three current staffers and five lawyers representing young clients at the centers.

The reports of makeshift sleeping arrangements come after state officials issued a temporary waiver for the Crossroads and Horizon juvenile jails on Oct. 23 that allows “dormitory-style housing.” State law mandates that every juvenile detainee gets a single bed in their own room with sheets, pillowcases and clothing storage. The waiver, which was obtained by Gothamist, allows the city’s centers to bypass the law until January 2024.

Since the change, at least two detainees reported being assaulted and say they fear for their safety, according to two lawyers representing them.

Gothamist first reported the city was detaining teens in classrooms in June, publishing a photo of a young detainee hunched over in a school chair with a sheet over his head. City officials said at the time they were detaining teens in classrooms occasionally for their own safety.

At a City Council hearing on Oct. 13, Nancy Ginsburg, deputy commissioner of the Administration for Children’s Services, which runs the juvenile facilities, vehemently denied putting young people in classrooms “other than for school purposes during the school day.”

Ten days later, the state Office of Children and Family Services granted Ginsburg a waiver by name allowing for “classroom space [to] be utilized as housing space.” It is not clear when the city requested the waiver. Attorneys for the teens say it’s not just classrooms the young people are sleeping in – its cafeterias and visiting rooms as well.

“These conditions are a major human rights violation,” said Sandeep Kandhari, director of the youth defense practice for the Center for Family Representation.

Marisa Kaufman, an ACS spokesperson, disputed what attorneys say their clients have reported. She said detainees sleep in “portable beds” with a mattress, sheets, bedding and pillows. ACS is also converting several offices to bedrooms, she said.

Asked about teens being assaulted, Kaufman said the sleeping areas are “closely supervised” by staff and the agency is working to expedite the release of some detainees.

On Oct. 23, OCFS, which oversees the jails, issued the waiver allowing city officials to increase the jails’ legal capacity of about 200 by 19 more people through Jan. 5, 2024. The waiver specifies that 16- and 17-year-olds charged with serious crimes, including murder and attempted murder, are excluded from the waiver and sleep in individual rooms, as state law requires.

Teens are being forced to move around the jail throughout the day with nowhere to keep their belongings “or to feel safe and like it’s their own,” said Lisa Freeman, Legal Aid Society Juvenile Rights Practice director for special litigation and law reform.

Detainees also reported lacking basic necessities like clothing and pillows, she said, which violates state law. “Frankly, it’s somewhat appalling that [the Office of Children and Family Services] granted the waiver for this,” Freeman said.

Three current staff members at the city’s two juvenile detention centers confirmed the conditions anonymously because they were not authorized to speak to the press.

“Sometimes they lay on the table,” because they do not have a bed, one of the staff members told Gothamist. “It’s a horrible situation.”

Roughly 200 New Yorkers between the ages of 12 and 21 are jailed while awaiting sentencing at two juvenile facilities run by ACS and state officials: Crossroads in Brownsville, Brooklyn, and Horizon Juvenile Detention Center in the South Bronx. More than 93% of youth detained are Black or Hispanic, according to ACS.

Youth detention numbers citywide have soared in the past two years, from 987 admissions in 2021 to 1,775 in 2023, according to city data. The spike is driven by an increase in arrests, ACS Commissioner Jess Dannhauser said in the latest Mayor’s Management Report, an annual report card from the city.

Detainees are jailed on average for 133 days, with many jailed for over a year, according to a federal monitor who has been appointed to oversee one of the juvenile jails.

OCFS spokesman Solomon Syed said this is the first time the state has issued a waiver to bypass state law at the jails. Waivers to regulatory standards are only granted to detention centers that demonstrate a “comprehensive plan” to keep youth in their care safe, he said, adding that OCFS may revoke the waiver if these conditions aren’t met.

No incidents of young people being endangered have been reported so far, he added.

But Legal Aid attorneys said teens they represent have already reported being physically assaulted in the shared sleeping areas. The lawyers say the teens report that they cannot sleep for fear of being assaulted, are woken up at 5 a.m. by staffers and made to leave the shared spaces, and are cold overnight.

The attorneys blamed the overpopulation of the jails on a lack of funding for alternative programs to detention, and said the city should have seen the youth-detention rate rising and done something about it before kids were sleeping on floors.

“Judges are remanding kids or setting bail on kids who otherwise would be suitable for alternative to detention programs,” Natalie Peeples, Legal Aid Society director of youth justice and policy, said.

City Hall spokesperson Amaris Cockfield said the Adams administration has been working for over a year to build more rooms and that “extensive planning” is underway to construct more classrooms.

The city’s juvenile jails have long been plagued by corruption and violence. In March, Gothamist exposed a staff smuggling network that supplies detainees with drugs, cash and weapons. In April, a guard at the Bronx jail was arrested and fired for having sex with an 18-year-old detainee. In July, federal prosecutors charged two supervisors at the same jail for violently dragging, punching and stomping a 16-year-old detainee.

“The child is being taught that they are a criminal not even worthy of a bed, and that they’re a person not even worthy of an education,” Kandhari said.

“When they get out, they’re coming out with this new identity that’s even worse than when we put them in there.”

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