Author explores toll from incarcerating kids

HUDSON–Columbia County was a major influence, Alexandra Cox, author of a recent book on youth incarceration told an audience in the Hudson Area Library August 6. She conducted research inside Brookwood Secure Center in Claverack earlier this century, worked as a sentencing mitigation specialist in New York City, later got a PhD in criminology, now lectures in sociology in England, and recently wrote the book Trapped in a Vice: The Consequences of Confinement for Young People.

Brookwood, run by the state Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS) holds youths who “committed certain violent felonies and were convicted and sentenced in an adult criminal court,” according to its website.

Dr. Cox shared the August 6 podium with Frankey Bailey, professor of criminal justice at SUNY Albany, and author of mystery and police novels. In the audience sat Allen Skerrett of Greenport, who directed Philmont Hearth after retiring as mental health supervisor for The Toombs, as well as other locals and some Bard students.

Dr. Cox said her research had shown the reality of youth detention is more complex and varied than the media and popular images suggest. One person in the audience commented that each wing of a facility has a different staff team, and each team of staff is like a different family with its own rules.

Despite these differences, Dr. Cox reported widespread similarities:

• Lack of preparation for re-entry to the outside world

• State officials’ arrogance towards not only inmates but also staff

• Priority to “ticking boxes” on checklists over attention to inmate residents as individuals.

• The specter of lawsuits

• Constantly changing philosophies of how to maintain and handle the inmates and what goals to set for them

• The persistent attitude that some people are simply unreformable.

“It’s a military model designed to break the will of inmates,” said Mr. Skerrett.


Dr. Cox and Dr. Bailey indicated that residents leave with little training for finding housing, getting jobs, keeping jobs, continuing education, staying free and overcoming obstacles their past has erected to achieving these goals.

Dr. Cox recalled one youth, a week before release, with no foster home or other place to go. The staff were “frantically googling to try to find place that would accept him,” as if their training had not included situations like this.

“So where do people who are released when they’re over 18 go?” asked a woman in the audience.

“First stop, a homeless shelter,” answered Dr. Cox.

Brookwood has both vocational programs and experience-building jobs for residents, though the latter are usually reserved for those with “good behavior.” But despite this, and all the public money spent on behavior modification therapy, “there are no real efforts at building life skills,” one person said.

A common worry among Brookwood residents is: “How can we stay free of incarceration when we get out?” Dr. Cox reported. A study of groups of New York youths leaving OCFS custody showed that by age 28, 72% of the young men and 33% of the young women had been re-incarcerated.

Checklist veneer

Staff can “tick boxes” on checklists to show they are doing the best they can, but these do not tell the whole story, Dr. Cox suggested. For example, when the state decided restraints were bad, it asked facilities to report the number of times they used restraints. Facilities did reduce their use of restraints, but many staff members became resentful, because their belief that restraints were the only way to handle certain situations persisted.

On another matter, Brookwood provides schooling and, said a member of the audience, “a really great college program.”

“I was struck by the low amount of time spent in schools,” said Dr. Cox. “They have so many alarms. I had yet to see an uninterrupted day of classes.”

“Brookwood has an incredible athletic field. It’s unused. Though they do play basketball,” said an audience member

“There’s boredom,” said Dr. Cox.

From one treatment program to another

Guidelines for treating youth inmates and what to prepare them for keep changing. “The flavor of the month,” was one comment from the audience. In Brookwood Dr. Cox saw an office full of textbooks whose use had been discontinued after a short time because the program had changed.

“We’ve been in a perpetual state of reform,” Dr. Cox said. But “in many ways, we’re back to where we started.” She said many programs presented as–and perhaps believed to be–new are mere “palimpsests.” Palimpsest is defined online as “something reused or altered but still bearing visible traces of its earlier form.”

“We need non-reformist reform, something not conceived in the same framework,” she said. “When I worked with reformers in New York City, it seems as if it was in a vacuum.” Not enough attention was paid to finding out what had been tried in the past and the results Dr. Cox said.

The “bad seed” attitude

Dr. Cox noted that the attitude of the unredeemable child is nothing new. In fact, a lot of youths at the facilities she observed told her: I was a bad kid.

One client started thinking of himself as bad only when he went to Riker’s Island.

Furthermore, she said, the Raise the Age effort could be used to reinforce the division into “fixable” and “hopeless.” It was for the “good kids,” those who committed “less severe” offenses or get on the DA’s good side are charged as youths; the others still get charged like adults. Raise the age, to be phased in starting October 1, raises the age at which offenders can be charged as adults for certain offenses.

However, Dr. Cox said, some residents talk about being bad in front of the facility’s video cameras in order to get more attention.

Also at the August 6 talk:

• Dr. Cox reported a high percentage of juveniles at Riker’s Island had traumatic brain injury.

Though Dr. Cox reported “racial disparity” in treatment of young offenders, she also reported that 51% of staff in NY juvenile facilities are African-American

• A man asked about the situation in other industrialized countries.

Dr. Cox answered, “I am weary of making comparisons. In England conditions of youth confinement are horrific. In Ghana juvenile facilities have poor living standards, but no fences or barbed wire. In fact, a leader gave kid money to go to town and run an errand.”

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