Lansing and Tryon. They are among the most secure facilities in New York State for girls who have crossed the law — remote state-run institutions located far from New York City, where most of their inmates are from. And to the girls who are sent there, the facilities are notorious.
“They restrain you for no reason,” Antoinette, a 17-year-old, said in an interview last week. She was confined at Tryon Girls Center, near Albany, after she was found to have committed a robbery. “They throw you down and mush your face into the floor,” she said. “It’s just like having rug burns on your face. They make girls cry and are always doing strip searches.”
Antoinette, whose last name was withheld to protect her privacy, was among 30 girls whose bleak accounts of life at Tryon and at Lansing Residential Center, near Ithaca, inform a harshly critical report about the centers released today by Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union.
Human Rights Watch has investigated conditions at juvenile centers for boys elsewhere in the United States and other countries. But this was its first look at incarceration of girls, and the report’s author, Mie Lewis, said she chose New York because of the size of its juvenile population and indications of problems at its institutions.
In New York State, girls represented 14 percent of the children taken into custody in 1994; 10 years later, the number had grown to more than 18 percent. A majority of the girls at Lansing and Tryon are 15 and 16, but some are as young as 12.
The 134-page report concludes that girls in the two centers, which together house about 150 girls, are being abused and neglected — violently restrained for minor infractions, subjected to sexual harassment and assault, cut off from families, and provided little rehabilitation.
Ms. Lewis, a lawyer and Aryeh Neier Fellow at Human Rights Watch and the A.C.L.U., said she was refused access to the facilities, which are operated by the State Office of Children and Family Services. But she combed through grievance reports and other documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Law and interviewed formerly and currently incarcerated girls.
“In other countries, we are always given access and we’ve been able to visit the facilities and talk to kids,” she said. “With O.C.F.S., it’s an incredibly closed and secretive agency. And then when kids are sent to these facilities, it’s like they are dropped into a black hole.”
The report calls on the state to curtail the use of a face-down restraint technique, in which girls are thrust to the floor and handcuffed. The report makes numerous other recommendations, from providing better education and assuring access to mental health services to limiting male staff members in girls’ living quarters.
A spokesman for the Office of Children and Family Services, Brian Marchetti, criticized Human Rights Watch and the A.C.L.U. for not providing a copy of the report to the agency before its release, as the two groups did for the news media. “We have to question their motives,” Mr. Marchetti said. “Is it to improve programs for children or is it to see their name in headlines and promote their agenda?”
Mr. Marchetti said the agency provided Ms. Lewis with 5,500 pages of material and granted her an interview in April with the agency’s commissioner, John A. Johnson, and senior staff members. He said that access to the facilities themselves is granted to researchers only after receipt of a research proposal and that Ms. Lewis never presented one.
As for criticisms of Lansing and Tryon, Mr. Marchetti said the agency had “zero tolerance” for any kind of “sexual misconduct” between employees and residents.
The report quotes girls who had worked as prostitutes who felt they were singled out by male staff members. A number of those girls complained of harassment, unwanted touching and sexual contact.
One girl, identified as Ebony V., who was 16 at the time of her confinement, recalled in the report an episode in which she was having sex in the office of a male staff member at Lansing when another male employee walked in on them. “He said: ‘Oh, oh, oh, oh I’m sorry’ and closed the door. It’s crazy, isn’t it?” the report quotes her as saying.
Mr. Marchetti also defended the educational offerings at the centers. Across the agency’s facilities in general, two-thirds of the young people score below grade level in reading and math upon entering. While at the institutions, he said, they improve on average by two grade levels.
One of the most stinging criticisms leveled by the report centers on the use of a face-down restraint. The report describes how girls are seized from behind and pushed to the floor, their arms held in place or put in handcuffs. The restraint is used for such infractions as not making a bed properly or not raising one’s hand before speaking, the report said.
The agency’s regulations say that such restraints are to be used to prevent children from harming themselves and others, but, Ms. Lewis said, the agency’s internal policy is decidedly more lax.
Mr. Marchetti said restraints were used to prevent harm and also to “de-escalate situations.” Asked whether they were used excessively, he said that “all staff in Office of Children and Family Services facilities are mandated reporters,” meaning they must report abuse to the authorities.
Juanita Crawford, 19, who spent a year and a half at Lansing after she was found guilty of reckless endangerment and conspiracy and is now an intern at the A.C.L.U., said in an interview that she was restrained after not moving quickly enough to dispose of her food tray and talking back to a staff member.
“He takes you and hooks your arms backwards with a lot of force, and it hurts, and you’re dropped face down,” she said. “It’s almost like getting tripped.”