After five decades marked by public scandals, delayed reforms, temporary closings and community dispute, New York City has removed all of the young people from its oldest and most infamous juvenile detention center.
The Spofford facility, otherwise known as Bridges Juvenile Center, has been empty since March 11th, according to the state’s Office of Children and Family Services. Mayor Bloomberg announced plans to close the center in April, and his plan is ahead of schedule.
Closing the facility is part of a five-year-old effort to shrink the city’s juvenile detention system, diverting kids instead to community programs designed to keep them living at home and out of trouble. Between 2006 and 2010, the city reduced the number of kids sent to detention by close to 10 percent. Each day there are about 244 young people in the city’s locked detention facilities, along with 144 in unlocked but supervised group homes, according to the most recent data available from the Mayor’s Office of Operations.
Community groups have fought for years to close the Spofford center, describing it as a relic of an outdated and ineffective model for incarcerating young people. “It’s a warehouse for children,” says Avery Irons, the director of youth justice programs at the Children’s Defense Fund of New York. “Dark, dirty, no space for recreation and very little for education.”
Advocates are now calling for the city to renovate and repurpose the building, located in the Hunts Point section of The Bronx, one of the most economically impoverished neighborhoods in the city. “If you keep an empty prison, it can always be filled,” says Irons. “Even if Mayor Bloomberg is committed to not using it, that doesn’t stop the next mayor.”
The Spofford Juvenile Center first encountered disrepute in the 1960s, when a string of abuse scandals led the city to take it over from a local nonprofit. The following forty years brought reports of physical and sexual brutality, mass escapes, at least one staff-run drug cartel and a prostitution ring. In 1978, a commission appointed by then-mayor Ed Koch called the center “a case study in failure,” concluding that the only solution was to shut it down.
The city initially closed the facility in 1998, only to reopen it six months later under an influx of Giuliani-era “tough-on-crime” juvenile arrests. Despite a round of renovations and a renaming, advocates say the building quickly reverted to a dank, rodent-infested maze of dark hallways, barbed wire and barred windows.
Until this month, the Bloomberg administration has used the facility as an intake center, holding young people for up to two weeks before they were released, transferred to a longer-term facility or sent to a state-run jail. The mayor committed to closing the facility for good last May, but plans were repeatedly delayed by construction needs in the city’s other, newer detention centers.
Advocates and many in the administration want the city to move away from the practice of locking kids in big, high-security facilities that mimic adult prisons. “Research has shown that large-scale secure detention models fail both children and public safety,” says Gabrielle Prisco, director of the Juvenile Justice Project at the Correctional Association of New York.
Last month, the city came under new fiscal pressure to downsize its juvenile detention system when Governor Andrew Cuomo proposed a cap on state payments for cities’ and counties’ detention costs. Under the current spending system, New York State reimburses the city for 49 percent of its detention expenses, which run to about $70 million each year.
In fiscal year 2010, the state contributed $38 million of that cost, according to the New York City Independent Budget Office (IBO). Under the governor’s proposal, New York City would be eligible for a maximum of only $19.5 million, according to an IBO analysis, pushing the city’s costs up by at least $15 million.
The Administration for Children’s Services did not respond to requests for comment before this story was published.