Inside Crossroads, a ‘Maximum Security Prison’ For Youths

Residents at the Crossroads Juvenile Detention Center. (Photo by José Martínez via El Diario)

Two guards stand at the entrance, tasked with collecting the visitors’ valuables and explaining the center’s rules. Two doors open at the order of a third guard who analyzes every movement made inside the capsule, where, for a few seconds, everything stops. A door on the other side opens. A second capsule. Another couple of seconds.

The procedure resembled that of a maximum security prison, but that is not what this is.

Inside, it looks more like a high school, and that is what Crossroads is, at least in part. The center holds 39 youths between 14 and 17 years of age, most of them Hispanic and African American.

Crossroads, in Brooklyn, is one of the two secure juvenile detention centers in New York City operated by the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS). The other one, Horizon Juvenile Center, is in the Bronx.

According to ACS, the centers are generally reserved for youths who pose the highest risk or have been accused of committing serious offenses. At the state level, the number of facilities for youths reaches 31, between secure detention and non-secure detention group homes. The latter offer a less restrictive setting for low-risk youths who have court cases pending in Family Court.

It is impossible not to shudder while walking down the halls of the Crossroads detention center. As youths everywhere are getting ready to start the new school year and prepare their college applications, the minors living in this jail must come out of their cells to go to class. It is undoubtedly a less dangerous alternative than life in the streets, they say, sitting at a round table in a classroom decorated with messages alluding to freedom and pictures of African-American leaders such as Harriet Tubman. (…)

“This summer, I have read several books. I remember that we had a book about segregation,” said one of the young men during a conversation with Louis Watts, executive director of Crossroads. “I love to read, and I want to continue doing so when I get out of here.”

Joined by some of his fellow residents, the 17-year-old went on: “I have learned to make the most out of every situation.” In the past, he was involved with a gang. “There is so much more for me to do and change,” said the minor, prompting the others to clap and chant: “Good job! Good job! G-o-o-d j-o-b!”

Hispanics among the residents

Another young man spoke. A Hispanic of 16, he held a book in his hands as he narrated how he was bullied by a gang at school. (…) Seeking to prevent further beatings, he tried to face up to the gang members but ended up getting in trouble with the police.

“There was a gang in my school, and they would attack me because they thought I was part of a Mexican gang from Texas, where I am from. All because I am Hispanic,” recalled the teen. As with the rest of the residents, we may not publish his name as per a state law that protects the identity of minors.

(…) Director Watts says that his job is not to judge. “My mission – our mission – is to serve these teenagers and help them find a positive meaning to their lives.” The idea has been put into practice in the last few years after a number of scandals alluding to physical and sexual abuse in the city’s juvenile detention centers arose.

(…) ACS Commissioner David Hansell walked down the same halls in an effort to show that the center has turned around and in preparation for the long-awaited moment when all minors held in the Rikers Island jail are transferred to these juvenile centers, specifically to Horizon, in the Bronx. (…)

“Minors must be treated as minors. Young people need to be treated as young people,” emphasized Hansell, who inspected everything from the classrooms to the residents’ sleeping areas alongside other city officials.

(…) We enter a room with bone-white walls and teal doors, but the shade of blue does not resemble what you could find in a hotel room but rather that in a psychiatric ward. Hard plastic chairs are located near the TV set, which is secured inside a clear box. Enclosing the area, smaller rooms with numbers on the door create a sense of “communal” living. Inside each of them, there is a single bed, a desk and a board. On the far wall, a blind window with frosted glass. There is no way to look outside.

(…) A mural painted by the teens during their summer program separates two security doors from the school’s cafeteria. There, in the hope of helping the residents make better decisions, ACS youth development specialists and instructors split their time between teaching computer labs and literature and math classes.

“This is a different environment from the life they had on the street, and we know they can give more if they receive the support they need while they pay for the crimes they committed,” said specialist Jerome Hallow.

Earlier this month, City Hall announced that it would transfer 90 minors who are being held on Rikers Island to the Horizon Juvenile Center in the Bronx. ACS officials did not confirm whether other youths would be relocated to Crossroads.

(…) The transferred teens will arrive in the midst of a major change inside the juvenile justice system in which a law passed in April 2017 turned New York into the 49th state to rule that 16- and 17-year-olds should not be automatically considered adults. The decision requires the city to transfer these minors from Rikers Island to juvenile detention centers. The deadline to carry out the transfers is Oct. 1.

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