One Man’s Mission Impossible
BY BETHANY BROIDA
April 4, 2005
Vincent Schiraldi lives in constant motion. He rocks back and forth in his chair, talking in staccato streams, his hands darting as punctuation.
“I had a lot of friends that thought: What? Why would you take that job?” Schiraldi says. “Some people said it was a bad move.”
His energy seems contagious — and it needs to be. Sisyphian tasks require that.
The nationally known youth justice advocate made his reputation railing against a system that locks up kids and throws away the key. He wrote scathing op-eds and gave sound bites. “When you’re an advocate, everyone is the enemy,” he says.
But that was when he was on the sidelines. Now, he’s the one charged with reforming an ailing system and closing a failing prison that symbolizes everything he has spent his career fighting against.
“Ten years ago, me being in this position would be unthinkable,” Schiraldi says. “The important place is where the action is, and the action is on the inside.”
In January, D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams handpicked Schiraldi to head the newly renamed Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services, seeking a fresh start for an agency that has struggled for more than two decades to address juvenile crime in the city.
Williams went a step further by making Schiraldi’s position part of his Cabinet, meaning the former advocate will have direct control over his agency’s $58 million budget.
Still, Schiraldi has just 18 months to complete a daunting task: closing down D.C.’s notorious Oak Hill Youth Center — a dirty, rundown, overcrowded juvenile prison that has been the center of a civil rights lawsuit since the 1980s.
“Oak Hill is a place I would not feel comfortable kenneling my dog,” says Schiraldi. “I wake up in cold sweats about it every day.”
20 YEARS SINCE JERRY M
As you walk past the drab, low-slung ’60s-era buildings that line Oak Hill’s campus in Laurel, Md., there are no prison bars, and the residents aren’t handcuffed as they move from building to building, but Oak Hill nonetheless has an unmistakable feel of a prison.
Corrections officers with walkie-talkies telegraph every move before it is made, and privacy of any kind, even in the bathrooms, is nonexistent. Spread across the walls in some of the buildings are hundreds of pictures and obituaries of former residents killed after their release.
The only hint of color to break up the overwhelming sense of dullness comes from the T-shirts residents wear to indicate their status. Purple means that the youth is a high-risk committed offender, while red and orange indicate the special observation and drug units, respectively. Dark green is for the low-risk kids who have been committed to the facility. Sky blue, gray, and white are reserved for new residents and detained youth who are waiting for trial.
Around 200 juveniles are incarcerated at Oak Hill for crimes ranging from drugs and truancy to car theft and sexual assault. While more than 70 percent of these kids committed nonviolent crimes, by the time they are released, many will be drug-addicted, hardened criminals. Corrections officers here say a large percentage won’t be on the outside for long.
Alonzo Jones, a supervisory corrections officer at the facility, estimates that, within 90 days, 25 to 30 percent of the kids will find themselves back behind Oak Hill’s barbed wire fences and that, within six months, the number will climb to 50 percent. Ninety percent of them will return at some point, he says.
Conditions inside the facility are so worrisome and dangerous that, in 1985, the D.C. Public Defender Service and the American Civil Liberties Union filed a class action against the D.C. government on behalf of Jerry M, an anonymous youth incarcerated in the facility.
The next year, the parties agreed to a consent decree detailing how the District should operate the facility. But since then, the city has faced about $3 million in fines and has been held in contempt several times for failing to fix the problems.
In May 2004, in what was considered to be a last-chance effort to keep the facility from court receivership, a special arbiter, Grace Lopes, was appointed to take over the case and work with the parties toward a solution.
“It is something out of a horror movie,” says Peter Nickles, a partner at Covington & Burling and the lead counsel for the plaintiffs in the Jerry M class action.
Fifty-two reports by court-appointed monitors over the years have detailed problems with overcrowding, lax security, violence, drug smuggling, infestation, health and safety violations, unstable leadership, and a host of other issues.
And last fall, according to Nickles, Oak Hill hit what he considers an all-time low. More than 220 kids, substantially more than the court-imposed limit, were locked in the facility without hot water or warm clothing, much less rehabilitation and training programs, he says.
In addition, the facility has not had a structured drug treatment program in place since 2003, despite the fact that almost all of Oak Hill’s residents have substance abuse problems. Many youths who tested negative for drugs when they entered Oak Hill tested positive once inside, according to a report from the D.C. inspector general. The last contractor left because the system was unable to stem the influx of drugs.
Hulon Willis, Oak Hill’s acting superintendent, says that negotiations to bring in a drug treatment program are ongoing.
A new agreement between the parties in the Jerry M class action signed in March calls for some short-term indicators that progress is being made. They include the closing of the girls’ cottage, a reduction in population to 181 residents, an action plan to address fire safety violations, and staff training for a new cottage on the property that will use some of the reforms Schiraldi has suggested. All have April deadlines.
Schiraldi, 46, began his advocacy more than 20 years ago — first as a house parent at a group home in New York and then as a nationally known expert and advocate for reforms to the juvenile justice system. Most recently, he was the executive director at the Justice Policy Institute, a nonprofit research and public policy organization that promotes alternatives to incarceration. And his investment in children extends to his home. He has two children and has served as a foster parent to a third.
“Vinny believes in second chances with a real commitment,” says Sharon Rubinstein, director of communications for Advocates for Children and Youth. “He has been doing this work for a long time, and he believes in the possibility of reform and wants to make it happen.”
Bart Lubow, director of the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Program for High Risk Youth and Their Families, describes Schiraldi as effective, confident, and fearless.
“He knows this is a high-risk undertaking because what he is going to bring to the discussions and debates are going to challenge a lot of people,” Lubow says. “He gets that there will be foot dragging and resistance.”
Schiraldi’s philosophy on juvenile justice stems from his own childhood in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he admits he got into his fair share of trouble as a kid by playing pranks and wreaking havoc.
The difference, he says, is that the police didn’t arrest kids for that kind of thing in the 1960s and 1970s. They talked to them instead, Schiraldi says.
“Kids are kids. We all did stuff when we were young,” he says. “Would you want to be judged by what you did as a kid?”
But this is the District, not the Brooklyn of 40 years ago. And residents in some of the city’s crime-plagued communities say this is not about kids doing kid stuff.
“It is like Lord of the Flies here,” says Joseph Fengler, an advisory neighborhood commissioner from Ward 6. “Teenagers and drug-dealers run the area. They are not afraid.”
Anthony Muhammad, a commissioner from Ward 8, agrees. “One of the biggest problems is car theft. It is big, big, big.”
Some of the car thieves are the same kids over and over again, he says, adding that residents are frustrated.
The District’s crime statistics show that types of juvenile crime like car thefts are on the rise. According to testimony from D.C. Metropolitan Police Chief Charles Ramsey at a D.C. Council hearing in January, juvenile arrests were up 20 percent in 2004 with a particular emphasis on arrests for unauthorized use of a motor vehicle, narcotics violations, various misdemeanors, and other potential “gateway crimes.”
“When juvenile arrests are not followed up by certain quick and progressive sanctions,” he told the D.C. Council, “our young people get the message that they can get away with crime.”
But Schiraldi doesn’t talk that way.
As he moves forward with plans to close Oak Hill, the question becomes what will happen to the nearly 200 juveniles locked in there on any given day.
A NEW APPROACH
Schiraldi says he has a plan, and it doesn’t involve building a new large-scale facility to take Oak Hill’s place. “We have an edifice complex,” he says. “We feel that if a kid is not in a building, then they are not being punished adequately.”
In his rapid-fire manner, Schiraldi can quote a litany of studies and statistics that he says show juvenile crime and recidivism rates dropping when jurisdictions take a community-based approach to rehabilitating troubled youth.
Instead of locking kids up, Schiraldi says, he plans to set up evening reporting centers in communities where juvenile offenders will be supervised in the afternoons and evenings. The centers would provide structured activities and homework help during the time when kids tend to get in the most trouble. For others, he proposes a third-party mentoring program where kids are supervised in their homes with up to three daily visits by monitors.
For juveniles who need to be housed in a secure facility, Schiraldi plans on placing them in smaller, more “homelike” settings, with only 20 to 30 beds, where the youth can receive treatment.
Schiraldi he says he already has the money to open two reporting centers, with the first opening April 15.
But convincing some lawmakers and the public that some young car thieves and robbers are better off on the street or in a group home instead of a prison will be a tough sell.
“What the public likes is perp walks,” says Jeff Butts, senior research associate for the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute. “But the question is: Do we want a publicly visible system, or do we want one that works?”
AGENT FOR CHANGE
Schiraldi has already begun making changes at Oak Hill.
Since January, according to Willis, the girls cottage has been shut down. The 21 detained girls were transferred to the city’s new Youth Service Center. The overall population at the facility also decreased from a high of 234 last fall to 181 kids last week. Schiraldi says he is aiming at reducing Oak Hill’s population to just 86 kids by Sept. 30. Schiraldi says he is also addressing the fire safety violations.
A group from the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services recently traveled to Missouri to form a partnership with officials there to model the D.C. program after the one in Missouri.
Schiraldi’s actions have also turned around some skeptics.
“I am much more hopeful than I was before,” Nickles says. “It will never be perfect. You will never be able to put a bow on it and say this is 100 percent done. But it ought to be a hell of a lot better than it is.”
D.C. Councilman Adrian Fenty (D-Ward 4), who has long called for the closure of Oak Hill, says that Schiraldi “has the political support to get things done, but he has a monumental hill to climb.”
Schiraldi says he is up to the challenge.
“If you are a mission-driven person, you ought to wake up every day saying: What can I do to make a difference?” he says. “I thought if we could do these kinds of things in the nation’s capital — where every policy wonk is — then people will take notice.”
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