NEW YORK — Nearly 50 New York Police Department officers were called to help put down a violent, bloody riot that broke out at Crossroads Juvenile Center Sunday night when youth in detention managed to break out of their cells, access a supply room, turn mops into weapons and beat several guards, one so badly they needed stitches.
The mayhem broke out just days after current and former guards at the facility voiced serious concerns that conditions at the facility — created by a haphazard makeshift policy in response to the pandemic — were desperate and dangerous, a product of what they said was a misguided and ill-conceived plan to deal with the coronavirus crisis consuming the city.
One of the youth was able to hide a tool in his room and strip the hinge off his door over the course of a week, sources said, who asked to remain anonymous due to their jobs. Once he removed the hinges, he was able to knock down the door and free another five detained youths.
Once out, the youths attacked the youth development specialists — the formal name for the staff that guard the facility and the youth. They used the keys to access a supply closet. They accessed equipment and unscrewed the mop heads off the long handles, converting them into weapons. They threw a blanket over one guard and violently pummelled him with the converted mop handles. When other guards intervened, they were savagely beaten, one sustaining injuries that required stitches.
The chaos came just days after another youth development specialist had his teeth knocked out in another spasm of violence at Crossroads, in Brooklyn.
“The staff is scared to death,” said Derrick Haynes, an 18-year veteran of Horizon Juvenile Center in the Bronx and a friend of one of the guards injured in the melee. “They are scared for their lives. And look what happened — ACS better be glad that one of those kids didn’t kill somebody,” he said referring to the Administration for Children’s Services, the city agency that oversees the high-security detention facilities.
The violence occurred against a backdrop of fear and uncertainty among staff and youths about the city’s response to COVID-19, a response the union sources and former guards characterized as woefully inadequate. The union was not consulted about the ACS’ “consolidation plan” to turn Crossroads into a site for healthy youths and Horizon into one for youths who are sick, sources said.
An ACS spokesman declined to comment on the Sunday violence but said that both Crossroads and Horizon are abiding by policies conducive to the safety of both staff and the youth.
“In coordination with the Department of Health, as well as the health care professionals who work on-site 24/7, we have cleaned and sanitized all surfaces, implemented social distancing strategies, continue to ensure youth have access to medical staff at all times should they feel sick, and continue to issue public health guidance,” said Samuel Chafee, the spokesman.
A spokesperson for the NYPD indicated they had no record of a response by officers to Crossroads in reference to the riot. They added that the most recent incident involving officers there was April 12, when officers responded to a report of a stolen ID badge.
‘They lost control’
The violence at Crossroads was perpetrated by youth who were originally at Horizon but had been moved to Crossroads April 1 as part of the city’s COVID-19 plan. On March 23, Horizon housed 22 young people and Crossroads had 59. As of Saturday, Horizon had 6 and Crossroads had 66.
A union member who represents the staff at the detention facilities, SSEU 371, and who is familiar with the incident, said she thought the riot was a direct result of the misguided COVID-19 policy. Moving youth from their facility to send them to an unfamiliar one with staff who were foreign to them created the conditions for the violence, she said.
If they had stayed where they were first placed, the violence could have been avoided, the union member said. She noted that the same youth who were originally in Horizon were not causing any trouble there. It was only when they were uprooted and sent to an alien facility that things unraveled.
“I don’t think it would have happened,” she said. “I mean look, the residents may act out in some violent kind of way — it is part of the job. But you know, I spoke to one supervisor who said she had never seen anything like that. And she’s been on the job for a long time.”
Haynes, now retired, worked as a youth development specialist for 18 years, first at Spofford Juvenile Detention Center for a decade and then Horizon. In all that time, he can remember having to call the police to respond to an incident twice.
“They lost control of the facility. I’m so glad I’m not in that building right now. My life would be in danger,” he said. “And if they don’t do anything to change this crazy COVID-19 plan then it will happen again. It’s not a matter if it will happen again, it’s just when.”
Police from the nearby 73rd Precinct were called in to help quell the riot, Haynes and the union member said. Roughly 30 officers went into the facility to restore order while another 20 remained outside to provide assistance.
Earlier this month, ACS, which operates both Crossroads and Horizon, decided to designate one facility a “clean” facility and another a “dirty” facility — one that would be reserved for youth diagnosed with COVID-19.
“They’re essentially having this concept of having Horizon be the sick facility and Crossroads to be the not-sick facility,” said a union source. “But the craziness of that is that Crossroads already has a large number of people within the building who are already tested positive.”
Parents of the youth say they have been kept in the dark about whether their children are remaining healthy. One described the pain of not knowing whether their child had been exposed to the virus.
“I haven’t heard from my son since April 6. I don’t know how he is at the current moment,” the parent who did not want to be named said via Facebook message, adding, “the likelihood of people staying healthy are low since they are transporting kids and staff back and forth, which has proven to be dangerous because people can be asymptomatic.”
Move broke bond with staff
The decision to move the youth, made without the consultation of the staff, was the first mistake, according to union officials, guards and former employees familiar with the situation inside the facilities. It undermined one of the bedrock unwritten rules that governs people who work in prisons and detention facilities.
People in detention are creatures of habit, the experts said, and that is particularly true of young people. The youth kept in the facilities have a very regimented life. Their meals are served at specific times. Their showers and school are all set at the same time, as is their recreation time and group therapy.
But more important than all that, the sources said, is how the youth develop a bond with the staff at their facilities, a rapport that engenders a begrudging trust and understanding. The youth know what to expect from the staff and, conversely, the staff know what to expect from various youth, which ones are docile, which ones may have behavioral problems and are more likely to act out. It is a bond that borders on the sacred, and one that sustains an uneasy but durable peace between the youths and the adults charged with guarding them.
That peace was shattered Sunday night, the product of an ill-conceived response to COVID-19, sources said.
Haynes said all this could have been avoided if they had consulted with the union and worked out a plan to keep staff with kids with whom they had developed a rapport.
That connection between the staff and the youths is crucial, he said.
“It’s important, those relationships are built and those kids trust those staff,” he said. “And any new staff that walk in there right now who might test positive with COVID-19 — it’s not going to be no built relationship.”
The union source agreed.
“They already have some good habits in place,” she said of the relationship between the youth and the staff. “I know them, they know me. … So most people will kind of not press the envelope too much.”
When ACS made the decision to pair youth and staff who were unfamiliar with each other it ratcheted up tension that was already at an unbearably high level because of the anxiety around the coronavirus.
“When you have new staff, it is not uncommon that a resident is going to try to challenge that new staff and test their limits, whether that’s a new staff who’s relatively green and new to the agency, or just one you haven’t dealt with before,” the union source said. “It’s like having a teenager of your own — they want to test your limits sometimes just to see where the limit is, you know.”
Low staff numbers?
Haynes questioned how well Crossroads staff were doing their job because the doors aren’t easily unhinged; some have three separate hinges. ”They had some type of tool — in order for him to get the hinges off the door, you can’t do that in one day, it takes time,” he said. “So they probably were working on that door for about a week, maybe two. When they decided to go, the hinges were already loose. So staff ain’t doing their security searches. They would’ve felt that door wobble, they would’ve found that tool.”
If that is the case, it’s because the staffing at both facilities are at dangerously low levels, the union member said. On a normal day, a typical shift at Crossroads and Horizon will have 35 to 40 youth development specialists for three shifts of eight hours each, sources said. Shifts have been changed to 12 hours, the union member said. Above them are at least two tour commanders, as many as four per shift.
That’s because if there is an incident, one tour commander can respond and leave another to handle the rest of the building. And above them should be at least one operations manager in the building at all times, sometimes two.
“But my understanding is that they have had sometimes just two tour commanders to cover the whole day,” she said. “I think Crossroads was down to just having one operations manager who was able to work and then he was out for a few days.”
And the night of the attack there was no tour manager working, she said. Those shortages were compounded by employees who are sick or are scared to come to work because of the lack of cleaning supplies and personal protective gear plus other ineffective safeguards against the coronavirus.
Staff at Crossroads have frequently had to go without adequate personal protective equipment like masks and gloves. On April 1, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams held a press conference outside the facility to shed light on the problem, delivering 1,000 masks to distribute among residents and staff.
Haynes said Sunday’s incident reminded him of his time working at Horizon. It’s a hard job, and you have to be prepared every day.
“This is what I tried to explain to people back then,” he said. “… I need to be on my game every day.”
He remembers how on certain days he would come to work, touch the door, take one look at the guard in the control room and be able to tell things had been hectic. An uncomfortable sensation would crawl over him. If he wasn’t feeling metally prepared, he wouldn’t even clock in.
“I would just leave,” Haynes said. “And that feeling, that terrible sensation, that is happening every day, every day. That is what people are walking into every day right now. I’m worried about what’s going to happen next. Next time there might be bodies.”