The Lost Boys of Tryon
Inside New York’s most infamous juvenile prison, where troubled kids—abused and forgotten— learn to become troubled adults.
New York | January 24, 2010
TWO HUNDRED MILES FROM HOME, a 12-year-old boy wakes up in a tiny locked room. Outside, eight inches of snow hides everything but the sixteen-foot fence that surrounds him. The boy is from Brooklyn, but he’s serving time as a juvenile delinquent here in Fulton County, an hour northwest of Albany. The room next door belongs to a 14-year-old, also from Brooklyn. Down the hall are more kids from New York City: Harlem, Brownsville, Flatbush. Opened in 1966, this place used to be called the Tryon School for Boys; it’s best known as the reform school where 12-year-old Mike Tyson first learned how to box. Today the official name is Tryon Residential Center, but that’s a euphemism: Tryon has become a penal colony for kids.
Rumors of Tryon’s closing have been circulating for months, though it’s hard to pinpoint exactly when the campaign to shut down the prison began. Perhaps it started in 2007, when Gladys Carrión, the newly appointed commissioner overseeing the state’s juvenile prisons, visited for the first time and found the place so depressing that afterward she sat in her car in the parking lot and cried. Or maybe it was in 2008, when the video of an aide punching a teenage resident in the face made the rounds of the agency’s headquarters. Or maybe it started on the morning of Saturday, November 18, 2006, when Darryl Thompson took his last breath.
At Tryon, the boys live together in one-story buildings painted the color of lima beans, each with a name that evokes an Adirondack summer camp: Briarwood Cottage, Elmwood Cottage, Maplewood Cottage. Darryl Thompson, a 15-year-old from the Bronx, lived in Briarwood. That Saturday began like any other: Thompson and four other boys were brushing their teeth in the bathroom. The residents here are not allowed to talk during their morning routine, but on that day it was harder than usual to keep quiet. The boys had been on lockdown for two days—prohibited from playing basketball or doing much else—and it looked like lockdown would continue through the weekend. “Am I going to get my rec?” Thompson asked. “You guys won’t give us our rec!”
An aide charged into the bathroom. Whether he pushed Thompson first or vice versa is a matter of dispute, but there’s no question what happened next: Two aides pinned the teenager facedown on the tile floor, while a third man cuffed his wrists behind his back. Thompson stopped breathing, left the prison in an ambulance, and never came back. The medical examiner ruled his death a homicide, but a grand jury declined to indict any of the employees.
Last summer, the U.S. Department of Justice threatened to take over New York’s juvenile-prison system after investigating Tryon and two other state facilities and uncovering a litany of abuses: employees restraining kids so often and with so much force that kids had endured concussions, broken teeth, and broken bones. Governor Paterson convened a task force to investigate, and last week proposed a plan to shut down Tryon’s boys’ facility. Mayor Bloomberg has pledged to send far fewer juvenile delinquents to the state’s youth prisons. Even Commissioner Carrión admits the system is a complete disaster.
Despite all this scrutiny, three years after Darryl Thompson’s death, there are still teenagers confined at Tryon. One morning in mid-December, eight boys wake up on Thompson’s old unit in Briarwood Cottage. At 7 a.m., their tiny cinder-block rooms are unlocked and they trudge into the bathroom, eyes half-shut, shorts drooping past their knees. One boy leans toward the mirror, toothbrush in hand. Another rubs his face with a washcloth. An aide stands in the doorway, watching. On this morning, no one speaks. There’s no joking, no arguing, no cursing, no complaining about rec time. The bathroom is so quiet that when one boy steps into a stall to urinate, the splash of his piss reverberates through the room.
THE ROAD TO TRYON curves off County Highway 107 in Perth, stretches up a hill, then splits in two. To the right is the prison for boys, to the left is the newer facility, a penal complex for girls that opened in 1987. Kids arrive here in state vans, bouncing along windy roads, past farmhouses and silos, weighed down by shackles on their legs and cuffs on their wrists. Nearly two thirds come from New York City. More than half have been diagnosed with a mental illness. There used to be 325 boys confined at Tryon, but the population has been declining for a while now, and on this day there are only 46.
The residents of Briarwood Cottage include a 12-year-old from East New York who has five Bibles in his room and boasts impressive chess skills. At four-foot-eleven and 108 pounds, he’s the smallest kid here and has a fierce case of Little Man Syndrome. Little Man is always walking around with his chest puffed up as if to discourage anyone who might think of attacking him. (New York’s access to the prison was granted on the condition that none of the residents’ real names be revealed.)
The 14-year-old next door to him is called Bills by his friends because he resembles the Bill Cosby character “Little Bill” on the Nickelodeon cartoon. He’s a devotee of urban-lit and just finished The Coldest Winter Ever by Sister Souljah. At the other end of the hall is a 17-year-old from Flatbush with tattoos on the top of both hands—one says NO LOVE, the other CITY. He’ll be released in a few days when he turns 18.
New York State oversees three types of residential facilities for kids convicted of crimes. Those who commit the most serious violent crimes and are tried as adults are sent to “secure” facilities, the rough equivalent of a maximum-security prison. On the other end of the spectrum are the “non-secure” facilities, which house the lowest-level offenders and have no fences. Tryon is in the middle: a “limited secure” facility, with locks on the doors and a fence topped with two loops of razor wire. Of the boys now at Tryon, almost all are locked up for misdemeanors or low-level felonies. Most committed property offenses, like robbery or petty larceny. One sixth are imprisoned for assault or attempted assault. And roughly a third are here because they violated probation, either by getting re-arrested or disobeying rules, like no skipping school or staying out past curfew.
To the kids from New York City, Tryon feels like Siberia. “It’s like being in outer space,” says a teenager from Linden Boulevard. The sun disappears by mid-afternoon, and the snow never seems to stop. To get from their cottage to the school building, the boys pull on hats, gloves, and boots, then walk a quarter-mile through howling wind. From their bedrooms, they can hear guns firing—not the sound of a drive-by but of deer hunters. The kids talk to their families on the telephone, but many of them never get a visit. It’s difficult to get here without a car, and the trip by train and cab from New York City can run close to $200 round trip, an impossibly steep price for most parents.
Twenty rooms line this corridor in Briarwood Cottage, each roughly 12 feet by 7½ feet. The bed and desk are bolted down; steel mesh covers the windows. Rules dictate everything: how many books you can have (ten); where you must keep your underwear (on the top shelf); how many photo albums you can have (one). The boys don’t wear prison greens, but they do wear uniforms: red polo shirts with khaki pants. Nearly 85 percent of the kids in the state’s juvenile prisons are African-American or Latino. On this unit, most of the boys are African-American, two are Caribbean, and none is white.
The youngest kid in all of Tryon is Little Man, who says he was sent here for breaking into a house. Little Man is the sort of resident who likes nothing more than to provoke everybody. When he meets the agency’s deputy commissioner, he says, “How did you get that scar on your forehead?” To a staff member he thinks is gay, he says, “You a tootsie! Do you know what’s a tootsie?” One might assume that because of his size he’d get beaten up all the time, but the opposite is true. “He picks on everybody else,” says another boy on the unit. “If he doesn’t get his way, he might hit one of us.”
At the end of the hall, the boy with the nickname Bills sits at his desk, scribbling rap lyrics into a composition notebook. Asked how he got to Tryon, the boy explains that he was sent here after running away from a private facility in Westchester County. He and a friend had been skimming the Post one day, he says, looking for news from Brooklyn, when his friend pointed to a name in the police blotter.
“Isn’t this your cousin?”
A 17-year-old boy was fatally shot not far from his Gowanus Houses home early yesterday…
Bills dropped the paper and stood up. “My heart was beating. I told a staff, ‘Can you call an AOD [administrator on duty]?’ He said, ‘For what?’ I said, ‘My cousin just died.’ That’s when he started laughing,” he recalls. “I walked out of the gate … I don’t know where I was going: I was just walking.” Seven weeks later, he was sent to Tryon.
In the year that he’s been locked up, Bills says he has also lost a brother (to a heart problem) and a friend (shot at a party). On the small calendar he keeps on his desk, he marks each passing day as well as his next court date, which is a week away. He hopes to persuade the judge to send him home. “I wrote a letter,” he says, searching through the papers on his desk. Once he finds it, he starts to read aloud:
“Dear Judge Turbow, I’m here to tell you how much my life has changed since I’ve been in this facility. I went from being the toughest kid in my population to trying to be a positive leader for the negative kids in my presence … I have even tried to hold it together when family and friends died while I was incarcerated … I’m sorry to everybody I hurt in the past, my mother and father for putting them through this, you Judge Turbow for wasting your time on nonsense like this … I am writing to tell you I have learned my lesson and I beg you to give me one more chance back into my community. You can take my word for it as a young man I won’t let you down …”
THE IDEA OF REMOVING TROUBLED KIDS from their homes and sending them to an institution to be cared for by strangers dates back to 1825, when the nation’s first juvenile prison opened in Manhattan, on what is now Madison Square Park. Known as the House of Refuge, it quickly became a place where poor Irish kids were locked up for vagrancy and minor crimes. Almost from the start, the experiment did not work. After a few years of sunny press reports, stories began trickling out about kids being whipped and shackled. Nonetheless, the basic notion of the House of Refuge endured, perhaps because it moved these kids off the streets and out of sight.
Over the decades, the practice of locking up troubled kids became so widespread that it provided another political benefit: jobs. In 1966, when Governor Nelson Rockefeller presided over a ceremony celebrating the start of Tryon’s construction, he made a point of noting that Tryon would create 350 jobs. And he lauded the facility as “another step forward in the state’s programs to meet its social responsibilities.”
When Tryon first opened, it was known as a “training school” for both juvenile delinquents and “PINS kids”—out-of-control kids whose desperate parents had gone to court to declare their child a person in need of supervision. “It was a real scary place to be,” says Robert McElver, a former PINS kid who was sent to Tryon in 1972 at age 15. While he was playing pool in Oakwood Cottage one day, three boys attacked him; he fought off two, but then the third smashed him in the face with a pool ball, breaking his nose. “I just remember being extremely depressed,” he says. “I missed my mother, everybody else in my family.”
As scary as Tryon could be, there were some kids whose home life was worse. Michael Pettit, who worked at Tryon for 31 years, remembers one kid he supervised in the late seventies. “Finally he was released. Couldn’t stand his family and what they were doing. He walked from his home in Saratoga to Maplewood Cottage,” Pettit says. “Twenty-five miles he walked, at night, in the winter.” It was 9:30 p.m. when Pettit heard a knock. “Mr. Pettit, I couldn’t take it,” the boy said. “I’d rather be here.”
In the beginning, Tryon had no fence, and the boys often got to leave the grounds. They would go to the movies in Albany or to the roller rink in Glens Falls. “Me and 23 kids in a rickety old van. Never had a problem,” Pettit says. The boys were also permitted to go home for the holidays. There were always some kids who had nowhere to go, however, and so the Tryon staff would bring them to their own homes. Then, in the mid-nineties, after Governor George Pataki’s election, everything changed.
In a sign of what was to come, the job of deputy director for “rehabilitative services” was filled by the former warden of Shawangunk prison. It didn’t take long before New York’s juvenile facilities began to feel not all that different from Attica or Sing Sing or Shawangunk. Boys in uniforms marching around. No more home visits. No more field trips. No more staff playing basketball with the kids. If a kid had to go off campus—for a doctor’s visit or to court—he had to wear shackles and handcuffs. Employees who had come to Tryon because they wanted to help kids suddenly found themselves cast in the role of prison guard.
Longtime employees still talk about the moment the razor-wire fence went up. “That had a very negative effect on the whole place,” says John Warner, who started at Tryon in 1974 and oversaw Briarwood Cottage for nearly twenty years. “I think kids stopped feeling like they were residents and started feeling like they were prisoners. And I think staff stopped feeling like staff and started feeling like guards. I think that was the beginning of the end.”
WHEN GLADYS CARRIÓN TOOK CHARGE of the state’s Office of Children and Family Services in 2007, she didn’t know much about the inner workings of the juvenile-justice system. A former Legal Services lawyer with a background in child welfare, she used to run Inwood House, a program for troubled girls in Manhattan. As she visited the prisons under her watch, she became distraught. “The vast majority of these children are black and brown,” says Carrión, who is Puerto Rican and grew up in the Bronx. “As a person of color, I must tell you, I found that so disheartening, so sad.” From where she sat, it looked like the system was doing next to nothing for the kids. “Just warehousing them there,” she says. “Worse than that, we’re adding to the trauma with the violence and the inability to provide for their needs.”
The rap sheets of the boys at Tryon don’t begin to tell the story of how deeply rooted their problems are. Many were in foster care before coming here, and almost every kid has endured some form of abuse. An employee talks about a boy who was sexually abused starting at age 6 by multiple female members of his family. And then there was the kid who was tossed into a Dumpster at age 2. Almost every resident here has a diagnosis, if not four or five: ADD, ADHD, bipolar illness, depression, PTSD, schizophrenia. “Who do we incarcerate in the state of NY? Kids with serious mental-health disorders,” Carrión says. “I feel like I’m running a psychiatric hospital.”
But unlike a psychiatric hospital, there are no psychiatrists here—or at any of the state’s juvenile prisons. (A psychiatrist working on contract visits once every two weeks.) It’s easy to pick out which kids have the most severe psychiatric problems: They’re the ones with Velcro on their sneakers instead of laces. Most have spent time in psychiatric hospitals in the past; their diagnoses include schizophrenia and personality disorders. These boys are assigned to a housing unit specifically for mentally ill kids, where they receive more-intensive services, but at this point there are so many mentally ill kids here that the mental-health unit can’t possibly accommodate them all.
The vast majority of the boys at Tryon are on psychotropic meds: Adderall, Concerta, Wellbutrin, Seroquel, Abilify, Risperdal, Remeron, the list goes on. At times, they seem like adolescent zombies, staggering around in a pharmaceutical haze. Some boys can barely open their eyes in the morning. They struggle to get out of bed. They fall asleep in class. And then, once night comes and the lights go off, they cannot sleep. This is especially true of those who have just arrived. Perhaps it’s the lack of city noise or the side effects of their meds or the stress of incarceration—but whatever the cause, insomnia is a widespread problem, one that many get more pills to resolve.
As the number of mentally ill kids has grown, the job of caring for them has become much more difficult. In the last three years, there have been at least 55 instances of self-inflicted injuries or suicide attempts by boys at Tryon. Kids have swallowed screws, punched walls, cut their arms, drunk window-cleaning fluid, and tried to strangle themselves with everything from long underwear to a Walkman cord to a garden hose. The facility is supposed to submit an “unusual incident report” every time one of these incidents occurs. By now, the files at the agency’s headquarters are overflowing with tales that make Tryon sound like a madhouse. In the spring of 2008, a 16-year-old boy stripped off all his clothes during class, hoisted a chair above his head, and threatened to kill the staff and himself. Employees—with help from the facility’s director—restrained him three times before they finally got him into an ambulance and off to a local hospital. Eight days later, a 14-year-old boy was carted off to the same hospital after he punched out a window in his room, flung himself onto the floor, and began thrashing about, shouting, “Mommy! Mommy!”
THE EMPLOYEES AT TRYON who have the most contact with the kids are the Youth Division Aides, known as YDAs. Nearly all are male, most are white, and many of them are huge. YDAs spend all day, every day, with the boys, escorting them to the cafeteria, to school, to the gym, to the dentist, to court. The notion that they are, in effect, the kids’ temporary parents is not lost on them: They joke that YDA stands for “Your Daddy Also.” Armed with only a high-school diploma, a YDA can earn $45,000 a year plus overtime, which in this area qualifies as upper-middle-class. It’s hard to imagine working such a stressful, dangerous job and not burning out in year or two, and yet YDAs rarely quit: One third have been on the job for more than twenty years. There aren’t many other options. Most of the industry in the area has died, including the leather factories that gave nearby Gloversville its name.
Of all the job’s challenges, perhaps the most difficult one is not reacting when the kids lash out. The boys tell the YDAs to “suck my dick” so often that when employees have to fill out paperwork, they use an abbreviation: SMD. “They take it very personally, and believe me, the kids know they take it personally,” says Joseph Impicciatore, Tryon’s director. “Kids like to mess with someone who reacts.” A veteran YDA explains: “You have 110-pound kids coming up in your face, telling you they’re going to fuck you up. And you can’t do anything. So you go in every day to put up with abuse. And some people can’t take it.”
While some YDAs embrace the role of helping kids, for years the main criterion for hiring appeared to be size—an ability to wrestle a kid to the ground—which, not surprisingly, did not always yield the best candidates for the job. Stories of excessive force crop up all over the system. In 1994, two staff members at a non-secure facility in Delaware County restrained a 15-year-old named Jamar Griffiths, compressing his chest so hard that they suffocated him. Two years later, employees at a limited-secure facility near Ithaca restrained Lee Jackson, 14, with such force that they left him paralyzed and in a coma. He died seven years later.
At Tryon’s sister facility next door, reports of sexual abuse have leaked out in recent years. In 2002, a 41-year-old YDA named Curtis Payne raped a 19-year-old he was supposed to be mentoring. The attack resulted in the girl’s getting pregnant and later having an abortion. Payne was sentenced to six months in jail.
When abuses by staff occur, it’s typically during the course of—or immediately after—a restraint. On the evening of March 23, 2008, inside Maplewood Cottage, a surveillance camera caught a scene that’s played out too often at Tryon: A YDA helped break up a fight between two teenagers. Afterward, while seated on a chair in handcuffs, one of the kids spit at the YDA. The adult should have walked away. Instead, he clocked the 17-year-old in the face.
Occasionally, a kid will turn the tables and attack one of his keepers. Tryon’s most infamous resident-on-staff assault took place inside the mental-health unit in the summer of 2008, when a 60-year-old YDA named Charles Loftly was on duty. A teenager tricked Loftly into opening the door to his room, grabbed a piece of wood from his desk, and cracked him on the back of the head. Five weeks later, Loftly had a stroke and slipped into a coma. He died shortly after. According to the coroner, his death had nothing to do with the attack. Within the walls of Tryon, however, everyone blames the job.
DESPITE ALL THE HORROR STORIES of violence and injuries, what you notice most when you step inside Tryon is something else: rampant indifference. This isn’t to say that the staff doesn’t care about the kids—some of them care very much—but they are working within a system that has strayed so far from its original mission that today its primary objective appears to have little to do with reforming the kids and everything to do with maintaining control of them.
The boys eat their meals in a cafeteria that, at first glance, appears to resemble the lunchroom at any high school. They take a tray, go through the food line, sit down. But the scene takes on a surreal quality as the boys settle into their assigned seats, two boys to a table, each at opposite ends. It’s a strange sight: eight boys, each eating alone, staring straight ahead or down at their tray, talking to no one. Separating the boys decreases the odds that a fight will erupt, and as a YDA explains, “On the schedule, they have twenty minutes, and if they talk, they don’t have time to eat.”
At 11 a.m., the boys of Briarwood Cottage file into Deborah Bordwell’s math class. It would seem to make no sense to have these eight kids, ages 12 to 17, in the same classroom, but it’s easier to manage Tryon if all the residents of a cottage stick together all day. The teacher distributes worksheets, since it’s nearly impossible to teach math to a group with such wildly different abilities. The oldest boy in the room, a 17-year-old from Brooklyn, sits apart from everybody else, head down on his desk, eyes shut. The teacher doesn’t even bother giving him a worksheet.
Michael Bouchard, who oversees Briarwood Cottage, describes him as a “mental-health kid.” “There’s absolutely nothing that I can do with him,” Bouchard says. Earlier in the morning, while the other kids attended English class, he slept on a couch in a room across the hall. Why did he not have to go to English class? Turns out he’s not allowed near the English teacher. “He threw a book at him one day,” explains a YDA. Asked about his situation, the teenager says that he’s getting out in a few days. “I’m going down to Florida, staying at my sister’s,” he says. Then he puts his head back down.
Elsewhere in the math class, a 15-year-old hunches over a worksheet. Bordwell describes the boy as “big-time ADHD,” but says his focus has improved since he started taking meds. He’s five grades behind, but today he sits calmly, working on division problems. A YDA leans over his desk to help, and the boy appears to appreciate the attention. But like many of the residents here, he is under no illusions that he’s receiving a decent education. “It’s not a school right here,” he says. “I don’t call it a school.” What do you call it? “A place to hang out.”
As it turns out, he’s right: The school that operates at Tryon is in fact not a school. The State Education Department does not oversee it; there is no requirement that the classes here meet the usual standards. One of the best ways to reduce the number of juvenile delinquents entering the adult prison system is to educate them. It’s the sort of investment that saves millions down the road: Every kid who leaves Tryon and ends up in the adult prison system will ultimately cost taxpayers more than $50,000 a year for every year he’s locked up. And yet this school—unlike the high schools on Rikers Island—is not even accredited.
Several years ago, the education scene at Tryon was even bleaker. Back then, some teachers showed movies—cartoons, karate flicks, the Three Stooges—so often that the YDAs used to call this Blockbuster High. “The teachers would put them right in, play it the whole period. End of class: ‘Okay, that’s it, see you tomorrow,’” says Jeff Batchelder, a former YDA who left in 2008. “Next day, same thing. Same thing. Same thing.”
WHETHER TRYON IS TRULY THE WORST juvenile prison in the state is an open question. More likely, it is just the most notorious example of how tragically flawed the whole system is. Last year, the governor’s task force on juvenile justice found similar abuses throughout the state. Ever since Commissioner Carrión took charge, she’s been trying to shrink the system. She’s closed nine facilities already, and Tryon is next on her list. “All the things that are wrong with the juvenile justice system are right in there,” she says. “I think it is a symbol of the old way of doing things.”
In some ways, the budget crisis only helps her cause. It costs New York’s taxpayers $210,000 a year to incarcerate one kid in a juvenile prison, and, by at least one measure, this program has been a colossal failure: 89 percent of boys released from the state’s juvenile prisons are re-arrested by the time they’re 28.
Once Tryon is shut down—the proposed closing date is January 2011—New York would still have five maximum-security facilities for kids and six limited-secure ones. Carrión’s long-term plan is to keep closing limited-secure facilities, despite opposition from unions fighting to hold onto as many jobs as possible. “I will no longer export black and brown kids from New York City to support upstate economies,” she says.
But closing the prisons won’t make the problem of troubled youth go away. To make her case, Carrión points to the latest research, which suggests that kids actually fare better in smaller facilities closer to home. The contention is that kids who remain with their families, or at least close to home, are better able to maintain the sorts of relationships—with, say, a supportive aunt or a caring parent—that will help them stay out of trouble once they leave the criminal-justice system. In 2007, New York City set up an alternative-to-prison program that incorporates family therapy. While it has succeeded in reducing the rate of recidivism, 35 percent of the kids were re-arrested or violated probation and ultimately got locked up anyway. And many kids never qualified for the program in the first place because they were too mentally ill or had no family members willing to participate. Last week, the mayor announced plans to expand the city’s efforts, but still the question remains: What will happen to all the truly troubled kids who have no place to go?
For now, they continue to languish. At 1:30 p.m. on this day inside Tryon, the boys lounge around the rec room at Briarwood Cottage, killing time. Two play Ping-Pong; one reads a book; another sleeps on the sofa; two play Xbox; and two watch America’s Funniest Home Videos. The only flicker of excitement comes when Little Man irritates a 15-year-old so much that the older boy stomps on his foot, prompting a chase through the rec room. A half-hour passes and all that’s really changed is the program on the TV. Four boys and two YDAs stare at the screen. The calendar posted in the back of the room has just one event written in for the month: the day that Tryon’s youngest inmate turns 13.