Call it a mother’s intuition or just plain common sense, but Tamica knows her 16-year-old son will be better off away from the gray walls and iron bars of Rikers Island.
“He’s a kid, he shouldn’t be in jail,” Tamica said about her son, who she lovingly nicknamed “Stikey.” “He’s a juvenile and juveniles should not go to Rikers. A lot of things happen there…a lot of criminal things.”
Stikey — the Daily News is withholding his name to protect his identity — has languished on Rikers Island for eight months ever since he and his friends were caught with a firearm on Staten Island back in February.
One of Stikey’s friends had the gun; he did not, Tamica claims.
“He’s not a high-level criminal, he’s just a kid who got into a bit of trouble and his whole world has been turned upside down,” she said.
The thin, 5-foot-5, 130-pound teen was one of 22 adolescent boys moved from Rikers to the Horizon Juvenile Center in the South Bronx on Friday as part of the state’s Raise the Age initiative to treat 16 and 17-year-old criminal offenders as juveniles — not adults, as they have been for years.
As of Saturday, 51 teens were in the renovated juvenile facility on Brook Ave. On Sunday, six teenage girls were expected to be transported from the Robert N. Davenport Center on Rikers Island to Horizon, city officials said.
By Monday, some 90 teenagers will be housed at Horizon, city officials said.
The center, run by the city’s Administration of Children’s Services’ Division of Youth and Family Justice, is a brand new, brightly-colored world compared to Rikers Island.
There are no bars on the large bay windows at Horizon, and the hallways and common areas — all painted in warm and welcoming tones — are filled with murals and artwork the teens drew while at Rikers.
A teen’s stay at Horizon is filled with high school classes taught by teachers from Passages Academy.
“And when school is out the programs begin,” said Executive Director Susan Campos, adding that social workers and psychologists will be on hand to help the teens with whatever personal challenge landed them in the back of a police cruiser.
When the teens go to bed at night, they each have their own room, not a cell.
“At Rikers, they throw kids in cages,” said Dawne Mitchell, attorney in charge for Legal Aid’s juvenile rights practice. “It does not create a response to the trauma that brought them to Rikers in the first place.”
“These kids should not be treated as criminals, they should be treated as kids looking for resources that will bring them back safely into the community,” Mitchell said.
Beginning in June, Horizon underwent a massive remodeling. All of the children housed there were moved to Crossroads, the ACS’ sister facility in Brooklyn. Juvenile offenders 15 and under will be held at Crossroads from now on, officials said.
Campos wants to see the teens at Horizon “become productive members of society.”
“While they are our captive audience, it is incumbent upon us to do just that,” Campos said. “Our goal here is to not just educate them, but also prepare them for the community when they return.”
Yet Horizon is still a jail.
For the foreseeable future, 109 city Department of Correction officers — many of which volunteered for the assignment — will be stationed throughout the building. ACS hopes to have their own employees watching over the teens within the next two years.
The heavy doors to the minors’ rooms, hallways and common areas are always locked and a teen goes nowhere without a DOC escort.
Horizon even has its own warden — Ada Pressley, who kept the peace at the RNDC center on Rikers Island.
“It’s a different atmosphere. The kids have more from where they used to be,” Pressley said. “I think its going to change the mindset and give them an opportunity.”
That’s at the heart of the Raise the Age initiative — stopping the cycle of incarceration as early as possible, according to Krista Larson of the Vera Institute for Justice, which assisted in the creation of the Raise the Age initiative in 2014. The state law was enacted in April 2017.
“It’s a little bit of an experiment,” Larson said. “There has been a lot of planning going in to make this a hopeful setting for juveniles, rather than an unsafe adult setting.
“This is a whole new setting. It’s not going to become a ‘mini-Rikers,’” she said.
According to the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services, juvenile arrests have dropped by 70% between 2008 and last year, falling to 4,080 from 13,564 across the city.
About half of the 4,080 of arrests are for felonies such as robbery and assault.
Elias Husamudeen, the president of the Corrections Officers Benevolent Association, said those felonious teens are the ones currently being housed at Horizon, right next to correction officers who do not have chemical agents like pepper spray to fall back on at the new facility.
The union has opposed the city’s plan to use its officers to watch over the so-called “new juveniles,” claiming that they are not trained in de-escalation tactics and techniques the same way ACS counselors are.
The city said the officers received four weeks of training on how ACS treats juveniles, but its not enough, said Husamudeen.
Neither does a group of Bronx city councilmembers, who on Thursday asked for Monday’s deadline to be pushed back.
“(We) believe that the city is not prepared at this moment for a complete transition,” the councilmembers, which included Andy King, Ritchie Torres, Daneek Miller, Robert Holden and Inez Barron, wrote in a letter to Gov. Cuomo.
Just this past week, the same teens currently in Horizon jumped a correction officer on Rikers Island, and were only stopped when they were hit by pepper spray, said Husamudeen, who fears for his officers’ safety.
“Some of them look like they actually might benefit from a second chance,” said Husamudeen. “But some of them are not going to do better.