juvenile justice

No Green Space in Sight at Bronx Youth Detention Center

The unfinished recreation yard (left) and basketball court (right) at Horizon Juvenile Center in the Bronx, on June 24, 2019.
The unfinished recreation yard (left) and basketball court (right) at Horizon Juvenile Center in the Bronx, on June 24, 2019. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The Bronx detention center that took in teens from Rikers Island is keeping them indoors during much of their recreation time, thanks to months of delays in opening a new exercise field.

The yard at Horizon Juvenile Center remains under construction eight months after youth started moving in following the “Raise the Age” law, which spared them from adult jails.

Meanwhile, scores of 16- and-17-year-olds are largely relegated to getting air in fenced-in patio-like areas, and rotating on alternate days through a pair of half-basketball courts and a courtyard. The main yard remains an expanse of dirt dotted with construction equipment, next to a partially finished full basketball court.

“I’m not sure what’s taking so long,” said Bryanne Hamill, a former Family Court judge who now sits on the city’s Board of Corrections, which regulates city jails and juvenile facilities.

“I’m delighted that the young people are off Rikers,” she added. But even on Rikers Island, Hamill noted, the prison had better recreation for teenagers.

Before their transfer, she noted, children received an hour daily of vigorous exercise and fresh air outdoors — “not just sitting in an inner courtyard.”

The Horizon Juvenile Center in The Bronx. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

State rules require a minimum of 45 minutes of outdoor exercise and recreation for every detainee every day. That’s part of at least two hours recreation — including one hour for “large muscle exercise.”

Marisa Kaufman, a spokesperson for the Administration for Children’s Services, which jointly runs Horizon with the Department of Correction, said Horizon meets these requirements through the combined use of indoor and outdoor spaces.

“Providing youth with daily opportunities for large muscle exercise and space for recreation is essential,” she said. “Youth at Horizon have the opportunity to go outside built into their schedule each day.”

She added that weather and equipment issues accounted for the construction delays.

The city Department of Design and Construction, which is handling the construction at the Mott Haven facility, referred questions about Horizon’s recreation yard to City Hall.

A City Hall spokesperson didn’t comment except to confirm that contractors E&A Restoration were in charge of the work on the yard. E&A did not return calls for comment.

Delays and More Delays

Patty Ferraiuolo, president of the Correction Captains’ Association, which has members working at Horizon, warned against downplaying young people’s need to burn off steam outside, calling it “foolish not to give them recreation.”

“In the summertime, nobody wants to be in the stuffy gym for an hour, whatever sport they’re playing,” he said. “There’s a big difference between outdoor recreation and indoor recreation.”

Officials took the need for a nurturing environment at the youth center seriously enough that they sought out the consulting services of Mark Steward, former director of Missouri Division of Youth Services. They based facility plans on his nationally recognized model, which includes indoor and outdoor recreation.

“We always recommend you do that as quickly as possible,” Steward told THE CITY. “It’s just good on the mental well being of the kids.”

But the best-laid plans appear to have run aground in the execution.

The interior plaza where teens at Horizon Juvenile Center get fresh air.
The interior plaza where teens at Horizon Juvenile Center get fresh air. Photo: Courtesy the Administration for Children’s Services

Last September, as her department readied to move in teens from Rikers Island, Correction Deputy Commissioner Patricia Feeney promised a state oversight board that Horizon’s under-construction recreation area would be ready for use by February 2019. She got an exemption, in the meantime, from outdoor-exercise requirements.

After February came and went, Correction Commissioner Cynthia Brann sought and received a second exemption — this time promising a “temporary outdoor recreation space” expected to be ready by May 1.

That temporary space consists of six patios, some as small as a 150 square feet, and a courtyard split between nine residential halls, state records indicate. The areas offer spots for the teens to “enjoy fresh air,” wrote Feeney in the department’s request to the state.

In April, city ACS also opened what they describe as a “temporary – but brand new – outdoor basketball court.” The temporary court consists of two hoops.

Rec Space Is ‘Basically a Cage’

Stanley Richards, vice chair of the Board of Correction and executive vice president of the Fortune Society, describes the patios as “basically a cage,” with a screened-roof and fence on the outside.

“That in no way substitutes for that outdoor recreation that they’re building,” he said.

Hamill said that during her last visit to the facility, the air on the patios was filled with construction dust. “So they can’t really say they can go out and use that patio for some of the units,” she said. “That’s a little disingenuous.”

The recently opened basketball area and a shared courtyard are only available on rotating days, according to a spokesperson for the Board of Correction.

When the teens have their turn in the courtyard, Kaufman said, they do things like calisthenics, play catch with a football and ping pong. Barring inclement weather, she added, additional basketball space will open next week.

Justice watchdogs said the youths at the facility don’t have time to waste in getting access to the full expanse of open space, which before the construction project included a garden and even chickens.

Robyn Goldberg of the Bronx Defenders remembers her clients participating in the gardening program at Horizon before renovations began — and being “really excited about it,” she said.

“Having young people outside and having access to direct sunlight is important for their mental health and mental well being, important for their connection to the larger community that they’re going to even return to,” said Richards.

He added, “We need to hold the contractors accountable. It needs to get done ASAP.”

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