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Accuracy • Independence • Integrity

December 13, 2017   |   Ithaca, NY

Opinion

Student works with teens at correctional facility

The first time I walked into Lansing Residential Center, I was surprised by the level of security needed for girls so young. The man who let me into the building for my internship was in a room behind a window of bulletproof glass. He took my keys, my cell phone and all sharp objects before I was allowed to enter the facility. I looked through a large bulletproof glass doorway at a girl about 14 years old with shackles around her wrists and ankles.

Lansing Residential Center is a medium security correctional facility for girls who have been adjudicated by family courts for criminal offenses in New York state. The girls range in age from 13 to 18 years old. There are about 20 girls incarcerated in the facility in three different units. One unit is specifically for revocators, girls who have been incarcerated before and re-offended. Currently, I am working as an intern at the facility through the women’s studies program at Ithaca College. So far, I have spent time observing the girls’ classes, recreation activities and educational groups.

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Liz McDonald

When I reached the unit with the girls, I noticed they were all wearing identical navy blue uniforms and black shoes. For each unit, two uniformed employees called YDAs — short for Youth Division Aide — follow the girls’ every movement throughout their day. The YDAs are armed only with handcuffs and radios to call for back up. Should any of the girls become physically or verbally aggressive, it is the role of the YDAs to talk them down or restrain them if that should fail. The YDAs carry a large log book in which every imaginable detail about events on the unit and the girls’ behavior is recorded. The manner in which the girls interact with teachers, the psychologist and other staff at the facility is noted: good and bad. When the girls are locked in their rooms at night, checks are done every 15 minutes and recorded in the log book.

Monday through Friday, the girls have a strict regimen of schooling, Dialectal Behavioral Therapy groups, drug and alcohol education groups, and health promotion classes which address issues such as pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases and healthy living habits. New York state has mandated the inclusion of therapy, both group and individual, during their stay at Lansing.

It is of no surprise that most of the girls at the facility are from urban, impoverished, minority communities. Sadly, most have histories of violence and neglect in their past. It is the mission of the Office of Family and Children’s services to address issues of trauma and neglect while the girls are in the care of the state. Using a modality called the Sanctuary approach, staff is encouraged to consider and address each individual’s specific set of circumstances in their interactions with the girls. Dialectal Behavioral Therapy groups are mandated at the facility to teach the girls healthy coping skills to deal with the problems they have to face while incarcerated and when released from the facility. Unfortunately, recidivism is currently estimated to be as high as 83 percent.

Most girls find themselves at Lansing following multiple appearances in family court. Charges range from prostitution, possession or distribution of drugs, and violation of probation. All girls at the facility have been placed there after multiple appearances in family court.

It seems that the therapeutic approach is the best way to address criminal behavior among young women. Many come from very unstable situations at home, and most will return to these situations following their release. Much aftercare is needed to ensure the success of these women. However, it would be ideal if these girls could be reached before ending up in a facility like Lansing. Reaching out to high risk youth through volunteer programs could help to provide positive guidance for these struggling young women. Mentoring or fostering troubled children or volunteering at a community center are great opportunities to reach these at-risk youths.

Liz McDonald is a senior history major. E-mail her at emcdona1@ithaca.edu.