A day after two Correction Officers were reportedly injured breaking up a fight at Horizon Juvenile Center, the Correction Officers Benevolent Association Nov. 28 released a report outlining what it believed were the major factors contributing to safety issues at the facility.
During the first weeks after 16- and 17-year olds were moved from Rikers Island to Horizon under the Raise the Age law, which took effect Oct. 1, several incidents erupted that resulted in dozens of correction officers being injured. COBA has objected to its members being stationed at the facility, which is jointly operated by the Administration for Children’s Services and the Department of Correction.
Changes Not Enough
Though ACS and DOC announced changes to minimize outbreaks of violence, including securing classroom furniture to the floor and limiting the number of teens escorted together, that didn’t prevent a fight from breaking out Nov. 27 among teens who were reportedly Bloods gang members that resulted in two Correction Officers being injured. A day earlier, two officers were punched in the face, according to the union.
"Admitting you have a problem is the first step in fixing the problem," said COBA President Elias Husamudeen. "Much to the detriment of my members assigned to Horizon, as well as to the detainees there, the city and state of New York refuse to admit that major problems concerning safety and security still exist at Horizon. Rather than admitting that the roll-out of Horizon was premature and its operational plan was seriously flawed, the city and state continue to point fingers at one another instead of focusing on finding solutions."
In the report, COBA demanded an end to “the political gridlock that has delayed Correction Officers at Horizon from being permitted to carry and utilize” OC spray. Though the use of chemical spray was prohibited by the state Office of Children and Family Services, Governor Cuomo announced that COs would temporarily be allowed to use it on the adolescents for a seven-day period.
But the spray can’t be used until the state approves the city’s plan designating which offenders the tool can be used on, and even if it is, it will only provide temporary relief. The city would have to ask for permission from the state to continue using the OC spray once the trial period was up.
Seek Stiffer Penalties
COBA also called for harsher consequences for adolescent offenders who assault staff and other teens. Between Sept. 30 and Nov. 11, there were 97 use-of-force incidents at the facility, according to the report. (The first 22 teens were moved to Horizon Sept. 27). Though Mayor de Blasio said in October that teens who misbehaved would be sent to transitional restorative units in order to deter violence, the union said that wasn’t enough.
“There have been no re-arrests, no infractions, and no disciplinary sanctions to prevent these individuals from committing these very same crimes again. A crime is a crime wherever it is committed, and to continue to allow assaultive inmates at Horizon to face zero consequences for their crimes is to condone the absence of law and order,” the union report said.
A DOC spokesman said that compared to when Horizon first opened, violent incidents were cut in half last month.
“We are proud of the improvements at Horizon and of the hard work of our officers, who have kept kids and staff safe and restored order after some early challenges,” said Jason Kersten.
The de Blasio administration assigned Correction Officers to Horizon until enough Youth Development Specialists, the civil-service title represented by Social Service Employees Union Local 371 of District Council 37 created to work with the 16- and 17-year olds, could be hired and trained to fully run the facility. COBA has continued to push for Youth Development Specialists to be deployed.
The correction union believed that it was clear Youth Development Specialists were the best people to work with the adolescent offenders because of the low number of incidents at Brooklyn’s Crossroads Juvenile Center, where the 250 Youth Development Specialists who have been hired so far were sent.
‘Not Getting Services’
“The residents at Horizon are not getting the counseling they need and are entitled to because unlike the residents at Crossroads the YDS are not there,” the report said. “Any use of other ACS staff falls short as they are not providing the same services. This is a disservice to the 16- and 17-year-olds housed in Horizon.”
Local 371 has also advocated for Youth Development Specialists, who counsel and mentor the teens, to be moved to the Bronx facility. Darek Robinson, the union’s vice-president for grievances, said that the Specialists were supposed to be in place at Horizon starting Oct. 1 but the city kept pushing back the date, tentatively until April.
ACS said it was focused on ensuring staffing levels at Crossroads—which houses about 40 teens, half the number of offenders at Horizon—before shifting some Youth Development Specialists.
“Our goal is to move YDS into Horizon as soon as we feel we can safely do so while also maintaining safety at Crossroads,” said ACS spokeswoman Chanel Caraway. “Until that time, COs will be staffing Horizon with substantial programmatic and case management support from ACS staff.”
“We’re not buying why the city says there’s not more Youth Development Specialists there,” Mr. Robinson said.
Working Out of Title?
After several violent incidents erupted at the facility, in October the city brought in programming staff—who come up with activities for the adolescent offenders—to mentor the teens, which was out-of-title work, Mr. Robinson said.
“They’re asking them to do extensive counseling on kids, which is exactly what Youth Development Specialists do,” he said.
By not deploying the Specialists, Mr. Robinson said, the city was “ruining the spirit of Raise the Age.”
“We’re not going to stop pushing until we get Youth Development Specialists in Horizon,” he said.
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