ALBANY — New York’s system of juvenile prisons is broken, with young people battling mental illness or addiction held alongside violent offenders in abysmal facilities where they receive little counseling, can be physically abused and rarely get even a basic education, according to a report by a state panel.
The problems are so acute that the state agency overseeing the prisons has asked New York’s Family Court judges not to send youths to any of them unless they are a significant risk to public safety, recommending alternatives, like therapeutic foster care.
“New York State’s current approach fails the young people who are drawn into the system, the public whose safety it is intended to protect, and the principles of good governance that demand effective use of scarce state resources,” said the confidential draft report, which was obtained by The New York Times.
The report, prepared by a task force appointed by Gov. David A. Paterson and led by Jeremy Travis, president of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, comes three months after a federal investigation found that excessive force was routinely used at four prisons, resulting in injuries as severe as broken bones and shattered teeth.
The situation was so serious the Department of Justice, which made the investigation, threatened to take over the system.
But according to the task force, the problems uncovered at the four prisons are endemic to the entire system, which houses about 900 young people at 28 facilities around the state.
While some prisons for violent and dangerous offenders should be preserved, the report calls for most to be replaced with a system of smaller centers closer to the communities where most of the families of the youths in custody live.
The task force was convened in 2008 after years of complaints about the prisons, punctuated by the death in 2006 of an emotionally disturbed 15-year-old boy at one center after two workers pinned him to the ground. The task force’s recommendations are likely to help shape the state’s response to the federal findings.
“I was not proud of my state when I saw some of these facilities,” Mr. Travis said in an interview on Friday. “New York is no longer the leader it once was in the juvenile justice field.”
New York’s juvenile prisons are both extremely expensive and extraordinarily ineffective, according to the report, which will be given to Mr. Paterson on Monday. The state spends roughly $210,000 per youth annually, but three-quarters of those released from detention are arrested again within three years. And though the median age of those admitted to juvenile facilities is almost 16, one-third of those held read at a third-grade level.
The prisons are meant to house youths considered dangerous to themselves or others, but there is no standardized statewide system for assessing such risks, the report found.
In 2007, more than half of the youths who entered detention centers were sent there for the equivalent of misdemeanor offenses, in many cases theft, drug possession or even truancy. More than 80 percent were black or Latino, even though blacks and Latinos make up less than half the state’s total youth population — a racial disparity that has never been explained, the report said.
Many of those detained have addictions or psychological illnesses for which less restrictive treatment programs were not available. Three-quarters of children entering the juvenile justice system have drug or alcohol problems, more than half have had a diagnosis of mental health problems and one-third have developmental disabilities.
Yet there are only 55 psychologists and clinical social workers assigned to the prisons, according to the task force. And none of the facilities employ psychiatrists, who have the authority to prescribe the drugs many mentally ill teenagers require.
While 76 percent of youths in custody are from the New York City area, nearly all the prisons are upstate, and the youths’ relatives, many of them poor, cannot afford frequent visits, cutting them off from support networks.
“These institutions are often sorely underresourced, and some fail to keep their young people safe and secure, let alone meet their myriad service and treatment needs,” according to the report, which was based on interviews with workers and youths in custody, visits to prisons and advice from experts. “In some facilities, youth are subjected to shocking violence and abuse.”
Even before the task force’s report is released, the Paterson administration is moving to reduce the number of youths held in juvenile prisons.
Gladys Carrión, the commissioner of the Office of Children and Family Services, the agency that oversees the juvenile justice system, has recommended that judges find alternative placements for most young offenders, according to an internal memorandum issued Oct. 28 by the state’s deputy chief administrative judge.
Ms. Carrión also advised court officials that New York would not contest the Justice Department findings, according to the memo, and that officials were negotiating a settlement agreement to remedy the system.
Peter E. Kauffmann, a spokesman for Mr. Paterson, said the governor “looks forward to receiving the recommendations of the task force as we continue our efforts to transform the state’s juvenile justice system from a correctional-punitive model to a therapeutic model.”
The report contends that smaller facilities would place less strain on workers, helping reduce the use of physical force, and would be better able to tailor rehabilitation programs.
New York is not unique in using its juvenile prisons to house mentally ill teenagers, particularly as many states confront huge budget shortfalls that have resulted in significant cuts to mental health programs. Still, some states are trying to shift to smaller, community-based programs.
The report by New York’s task force does not say how much money would be needed to overhaul the system, but as Mr. Paterson and state lawmakers try to close a $3.2 billion deficit, cost could become a major hurdle.
Ms. Carrión has faced resistance from some prison workers, who accuse her of making them scapegoats for the system’s problems and minimizing the dangerous conditions they face. State records show a significant spike in on-the-job injuries, for which some workers blame Ms. Carrión’s efforts to limit the use of force.
“We embrace the idea of moving towards a more therapeutic model of care, but you can’t do that without more training and more staff,” said Stephen A. Madarasz, a spokesman for the Civil Service Employees Association, the union that represents prison workers. “You’re not dealing with wayward youth. In the more secure facilities, you’re dealing with individuals who have been involved in pretty serious crimes.”
Advocates have credited Ms. Carrión, who was appointed in 2007 by former Gov. Eliot Spitzer, with instituting significant reforms, including installing cameras in some of the more troubled prisons and providing more counseling.
But the state has a long way to go, many advocates say.
“Even the kids that are not considered dangerous are shackled when they are being transferred from their homes to the centers upstate — hands and feet, sometimes even belly chains,” said Clara Hemphill, a researcher and author of a report on the state’s youth prisons published in October by the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School.
“It really is barbaric,” she added, “the way they treat these kids.”