Drugs, cash and razor blades are flowing into the city’s juvenile detention centers through a network of employees supplying teenagers with contraband, according to current and former employees.
Teenage detainees have used smuggled cellphones to post videos and photos of marijuana and promethazine cough syrup on Instagram in recent months. Gothamist confirmed with staff members that the detainees were posting from inside their residence halls.
“You name it, they’ll bring it,” a current employee said, referring to staffers. The employee asked to remain anonymous because they are not authorized to speak to the press. “Some will bring in phones, some will bring in weed, some will bring in blades … just so they can survive. This job is not for everybody.”
The city’s two detention centers — Crossroads Juvenile Center in Brownsville and Horizon Juvenile Center in the South Bronx — are run by the Administration for Children’s Services and house roughly 200 inmates from ages 12 to 21.
Interviews with current employees and a union official who represents workers at the centers reveal a tightly protected network of staffers who smuggle in contraband like Percocet, promethazine, liquor, cannabis, cash, and razor blades tucked into wads of chewed gum.
Current and former staffers at the centers said conditions inside have become unruly since New York passed the “Raise the Age'' law in 2017. After the practice of sending youths under the age of 18 to adult jails was banned, 16- and 17-year-olds charged with serious crimes are detained at the ACS facilities for years while awaiting sentencing alongside much younger kids.
Darek Robinson worked at both of the city’s juvenile centers for over three decades until he left the job in 2014. He is now vice president of grievances for SSEU Local 371, the union representing most of the ACS staff at the detention centers.
Robinson said the contraband can get inside the centers “in a number of different ways.”
“It’s some of the [guards], some of the kitchen staff, some of the managers because the managers can get authorized to bring in some outside stuff,” he said.
Most employees are required to store their belongings in lockers outside the secure detention area, and managers are authorized to bring in some outside items.
Former staffers say the “Raise the Age'' law said the measure had good intentions, but its implementation brought a culture from Rikers Island into the ACS detention centers. Drug smuggling is not an uncommon practice on Rikers Island, where staffers have been indicted for bringing in marijuana and other contraband.
“Everything pretty much went south when that took place because [ACS] doesn’t really know how to handle these kids,” said Robinson. “You have grown men in these facilities and the programs are designed for 15 and under.”
Several ex-employees blamed gang affiliations, low pay and a system lacking structure for the contraband and violence on the inside.
But contraband is being brought in by staff at all levels, including leadership, staffers said – raising questions about a system charged with “keeping the young person and the community safe.”
“There’s high gang activity inside these facilities,” said Robinson. “Residents threaten staff, ‘If you don't bring it in, we are going to gang assault you.’”
In a high-profile case last year, teens in the Bronx detention center took three staffers hostage after stealing their keys and radios. NYPD officers couldn’t enter the building for several hours.
“A lot of razors are floating around very freely in both facilities,” said Robinson. “The staff find them and take them, then there’s fresh razors there the next day.”
ACS spokesperson Marisa Kaufman said the agency regularly uses search dogs to sniff out contraband in resident halls and terminates any employees involved in such activity. She said the goal of ACS is to prevent all contraband from entering the building and remove any that is found.
But Robinson said dogs last month “searched the staff, but they didn’t search the kids or the ‘hot halls’ that were allegedly known to have contraband.”
Unlike correction officers in adult jails, youth development specialists in the juvenile facilities are not armed and do not carry handcuffs. The agency says youth development specialists are hired to “serve as a role model, mentor and guide” for detainees.
One youth development specialist working at Crossroads in Brooklyn said his job title is more like “juvenile corrections officer,” managing teenagers who threaten to jump staffers in pairs or groups.
The salary for youth development specialists starts at $47,393 and goes up to roughly $60,000 after five years. Staff who are put on eight-hour shifts often work 16 to 18 hour days due to staff shortages, employees said.
Corrections officers in the city’s adult jails start at roughly the same salary, but get up to $92,000 after five-and-a-half years.
There were 150 documented youth-on-staff assaults and 257 youth-on-youth assaults at Horizon Juvenile Center from July 2021 to June 2022, according to a report published last year by the federal monitor overseeing the facility.
The report stated that staff “appear ill-equipped or reluctant to manage disruptive and violent youth.”
There was a 61% increase in admissions to juvenile detention last spring compared to the previous year, according to the Mayor’s Management Report published in January. The report shows 42% of the youths in the juvenile detention centers have been detained previously.
Kaufman, the ACS spokesperson, said 23% of the city’s youth detainees are charged with murder and 37% are charged with attempted murder.
“We've had situations where a parent has said, ‘I don't want this person back in my house,’” said Glenn Rodriguez, co-director of youth services at the Center for Community Alternatives. “What’s obviously missing is that adult presence that’s validating the things they’re doing right versus wrong, and supporting them throughout the process … In many cases, we’ve often been the first ones to hear them out.”
Kaufman said the agency is implementing new security features like enhanced searches at the entrances and portable phone detectors.
But Antonio Staten, who worked at Crossroads Juvenile Center until last year, said officials face an uphill battle as staff avoid confiscating contraband to stay out of trouble with the detainees.
“Nobody wants to be that person who’s like, 'let me thoroughly search in between all your stuff,'” Staten said. “If you have a good relationship with the kids and there’s no bad blood, they won’t bother you.”