on the horizon

Correction Officers Get Lavish Welcome at Juvenile Center They’re Due to Exit

The Horizon Juvenile Center in the South Bronx.
The Horizon Juvenile Center in the South Bronx. Photo: Jason Scott Jones/THE CITY

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The Bronx’s Horizon Juvenile Center is “plagued by disorder,” a court-appointed monitor for city jails reported last week — finding correction officers are far likelier to use force on young detainees there than in the city’s adult jails.

Yet mere months before the correction officers are due to depart Horizon and leave it in the hands of the city’s child welfare agency, construction crews have been spending millions of dollars to entice Department of Correction staff to work there.

In July, Administration for Children’s Services contractors finished installing a gun locker for correction officers inside a new, specially designated entry area, according to the city Department of Design and Construction — even as a play yard remained off limits.

Officers use that entrance, which ACS says has been operational since last year, after changing into uniforms in new trailers with locker rooms and office space for Department of Correction personnel, who also got a new lounge.

The sod-covered yard was completed by the beginning of September, according to the city design department, and is now in use, says ACS. But construction to adapt the South Bronx detention facility for young adults remains a work in progress, more than a year after dozens of teens moved from Rikers Island into Horizon in October 2018 under New York’s “Raise the Age” law.

The building contract with the firm E&A Restoration has since doubled in size to $55 million.

A review of ACS contract records by THE CITY show nearly $17 million added to the construction project after it began in February 2018 specifically to accommodate correction officers.

Meanwhile, the effort is being overseen at the Administration for Children’s Services by a construction manager who got paid $267,000 last year, after filing for overtime equivalent to a second 35-hour work week.

Delayed Departure

The city spending on behalf of jail staff comes as city agencies send shifting messages about when the Department of Correction will vacate and ACS will take over.

Before the teens were transferred from Rikers to Horizon last fall, a representative from the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice testified to the City Council that the Department of Correction would be out no later than March of 2020.

But this August, a DOC spokesperson revised that, telling THE CITY that its personnel will leave Horizon by September 2020, when the last of the current group of 16- and 17-year-old detainees — charged before Raise the Age went into effect — turns 18.

An unfinished outdoor recreation area at the Horizon Juvenile Center, on June 24, 2019.
An unfinished outdoor recreation area at the Horizon Juvenile Center, on June 24, 2019. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Youth advocates expressed concern about the Department of Correction’s extended presence at a facility due to be run by ACS youth development personnel.

“A 17-year-old arrested next year is no less or more of a kid than a 17-year-old arrested this year,” said Kate Rubin, director of Policy & Strategic Initiatives at Youth Represent, which works with young people involved in the justice system.

“Our position is firmly that those kids many years ago should have been — if they needed to be arrested at all — treated as children in the system. Which means … in the juvenile system overseen by ACS.”

ACS says they are working hard to keep up with law and cooperate with other agencies.

“New York City was the only jurisdiction required by state law to create a specially licensed facility, managed cooperatively by ACS and DOC, to house Rikers and gap year youth,” read a statement from Administration for Children’s Services spokesperson Marisa Kaufman. “We’re proud of the hard work that was done to comply with the law in the implementation timeframe allotted. These critical investments, and close collaboration with other city agencies, enabled NYC to effectively implement Raise the Age and address the needs of frontline staff and youth.”

Department of Correction spokesperson Peter Thorne said in a statement: “We are committed to the safety and security of everyone in our facilities. The Department is required to remain at Horizon as long as there are ‘Raise the Age’ juveniles in the facility, and we will continue to work with ACS to ensure a successful transition.”

Soaring Use of Force

In settling the lawsuit Nunez v. City of New York in 2015, the city and Department of Correction agreed to reduce how often correction officers use force in city jails and install a monitor to oversee progress.

At Horizon, the reality has been the opposite of the promise: Use-of-force rates reached a record high in June and are far higher than they were at the youth facility on Rikers Island before Raise the Age, according to the monitor.

Nunez monitor Steve Martin noted in his latest quarterly report that Horizon guards used force 440 times between October 2018 and June 2019 — in a facility that opened with just 70 young people. Just 17 of the detained youth, he said, accounted for 225 of the incidents.

“Staff’s lack of skill in developing effective relationships and constructive rapport with youth, their lack of situational awareness, and their tendency to either over- or under-react to escalating tensions all contribute to the high rate of violence,” Martin wrote.

The interior plaza where some teens at Horizon got fresh air while a yard was reconstructed. Photo: Courtesy the Administration for Children’s Services

Even as he expressed “great concern” about violence at Horizon — also including attacks by teens on other teens — the Nunez monitor also praised the city’s efforts to make Department of Correction officers comfortable there, including the lounge and trailers.

The settlement agreement committed the city to take measures to “encourage experienced and qualified staff” to work in youth detention. Martin found Horizon in full compliance, thanks to financial incentives, parking placards — and the newly built locker rooms and lounge space for correction officers.

“City and the Department worked diligently with union representatives to develop reasonable incentives to encourage staff to work at [Horizon],” read the report.

One former city criminal justice official questioned those priorities.

“I don’t mind when unions negotiate hard for their members, especially members who work in really tough jobs like this,” said Vincent Schiraldi, Senior Research Scientist at the Columbia University Justice Lab and former commissioner of the Department of Probation.

“But there’s negotiating hard and there’s just pissing away money and I feel like some of the stuff you’ve just laid out to me is pissing away money,” he said.

The Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association, the union representing many Department of Correction staff at Horizon, did not respond to requests from THE CITY for comment.

Full-Time Overtime

With each passing month, the Department of Correction has fewer officers at Horizon, as ACS phases in its youth development specialists.

Currently, 167 ACS staff are assigned to work at the juvenile facility, with some units entirely run by the child welfare agency. Fewer than 245 Department of Correction personnel remain, the agencies say.

One key player for ACS is Construction Project Manager Dorothy Edo-Agbaje — the top-paid civil servant at the agency for two years running.

Public records show Edo-Agbaje had a base salary for the year ended in June of $104,139. That same year, according to Office of Payroll Administration data, she clocked 1,850 hours of overtime — equivalent to a second 35-hour-a-week job without vacation or holidays.

In all, she earned $267,000 in fiscal year 2019, after making $248,161 the previous year with the help of 1,656 overtime hours. Edo-Agbaje could not be reached for comment.

“We take our overtime procedures very seriously and we’re closely reviewing what was logged,” said ACS spokesperson Marisa Kaufman. “Ms. Edo-Agbaje is the Director of Building Operations and, as an Architect, she has overseen all Raise the Age-related construction projects, including all of the renovations that have been occurring day and night at our 24/7 secure detention facilities in order to meet the deadlines.”

Those facilities include Crossroads, in Brooklyn, according to ACS.

At a City Council budget hearing in May, ACS Commissioner David Hansell made clear that both juvenile detention centers remain unfinished business. Said Hansell: “There’s still a considerable amount of work that needs to be done on some of the basic systems of those buildings.”

Criminal justice reform advocate Vidal Guzman speaks at a Board of Correction meeting in October.
Criminal justice reform advocate Vidal Guzman speaks at a Board of Correction meeting in October. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Not to be lost, say justice reformers, is a core original purpose of the Horizon reconstruction: outfitting the center to host programs to support young people’s rehabilitation and growth.

Vidal Guzman, who last year testified to the City Council against bringing correction officers to Horizon, told THE CITY that the teens at Horizon have been failed their whole lives by “school systems, broken houses.”

He said he sees Horizon as a place where young people can prepare to be successful members of society — with the right support.

“If that happens from the root end, the DOC shouldn’t be there,” said Guzman, who was incarcerated as a teen. “If I was well-educated in certain issues at 17 years old I probably would not have been that violent. I think how do we prepare them to come home? Attacking the issue from the beginning. What makes them angry?”

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