The Story of the Bronx’s Spofford Juvenile Detention Center

Spofford Juvenile Detention Center (Source: Google Street View)

The first time I went to Hunts Point was in 2009 when I was 12 years old. My father had learned of a chrome plating business on the small Bronx peninsula where he sought to get our bathroom sink’s tarnished legs rebuffed by professionals. After briefly seeing the workers doing the nasty business of chrome buffing, a toxic process involving exposure to noxious carcinogens, we decided to walk up the street and kill some time. I vividly remember my young mind being interested in a Sabrett Hot Dogs food distributor on Spofford Avenue, just before looking across the street at a sprawling, foreboding complex of white brick buildings guarded by rusted concertina wire. Austere in its design, this menacing complex scared me. “Dad, what is that place?” I asked.

“That place” was the notorious Spofford Juvenile Detention Center. Owned and operated by the New York City Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) for 54 years, Spofford was an intake facility for people under 15 years of age who were awaiting trial or placement in a larger facility. Holding an average of 289 young people at a time, 95% of Spofford’s juvenile detainees were African-American or Latino, and 54% of detainees came from the same 15 low-income, majority people of color neighborhoods—a list including South Jamaica, Brownsville, Soundview, and Morris Heights. In 2011, just two years after I first laid eyes on it, Spofford would be shut down by the city for its unethical conditions after years of organizing by local community groups. This year, the New York City Council voted to demolish the structure and build an affordable housing project on the land it occupies.

As an institution, Spofford was indicative of an urban politic more determined to incarcerate vulnerable young people than invest in their wellbeing. It costs $358 dollars of public money a day to detain a child at centers like Spofford—adding up to $131,000 a year per person. Meanwhile, the city’s Alternatives-to-Detention program, which seeks to “make it possible for young people with pending court cases to receive services in the community instead of detention facilities,” costs $44 a day per person. In addition, studies show that DJJ facilities like Spofford have a 47% recidivism rate each year, while 91% of those sent to Alternatives-to-Detention complete the program successfully. At the cost of ten people enrolling in four-year degrees from one of the its many CUNY colleges, the city opted to spend public money to detain one young person in a statistically ineffective and toxic institution.

One of Spofford’s cell-like rooms (Source: Wall Street Journal)

Spofford is one of New York City’s “secure detention” centers, which were described by the Supreme Court in 1984 as “indistinguishable from a prison” in the case Schall v. Martin. The court would go on to determine that the “pretrial detention of a juvenile pursuant… gives rise to injuries comparable to those associated with imprisonment of an adult. In both situations, the detainee suffers stigmatization and severe limitation of his freedom of movement.” The psychological toll that Spofford took on its young detainees was especially evident in the 1980s, when a record 50 suicide attempts were reported in a single year.

Decorated with lead-based paint and often crawling with rats, Spofford was an unsanitary and dangerous environment for anyone, let alone people under 15 years of age. A 1997 Daily News article reported that the facility’s dining hall was “overrun by roaches that invade the food.” The architecture was cold and oppressive, characterized by barred windows, poorly lit hallways, and open toilets and showers. During a height of overcrowding in the 1990s, some of Spofford’s detainees were forced to sleep in the infirmary after beds in the center’s cellblock-like rooms were depleted.

Aside from its physical decrepitness and hostility, Spofford was the site of serious human rights abuses at the hands of its staff. In 1997, there were 48 child-abuse claims made against Spofford employees, including one instance where a counselor was convicted of attempted assault after beating a boy nearly to death. The counselor was never sentenced and continued to be on the city’s payroll. The year prior, a counselor was fired for shackling a 15-year-old girl’s hands and feet and molesting her.

In 1998, the city promised to shut down Spofford and relocate some of its detainees at the newly constructed Crossroads Juvenile Center in East New York, Brooklyn and Horizons Juvenile Center in the South Bronx. These two projects cost $70 million in public funds. Due to overcrowding, though, the city then leased the Vernon C. Bain Center—an 800-bed jail situated on a barge in the East River, known colloquially as “the Boat”—from the Department of Correction, seeking to use it as an intake facility for the Department of Juvenile Justice. Infuriated, community organizations demanded that the city stop detaining children on the prison barge. These demands were eventually met by the city, which began reopening Spofford the year later in search of more beds for juvenile detainees.

Beginning in the 1990s, community groups from Hunts Point and all around the Bronx worked tenaciously to get the city to close Spofford once and for all. Appalled by its disgusting conditions, groups like the non-profit Correctional Association of New York helped form a coalition of New York City residents and former Spofford detainees to create the document Broken Promises, Broken System: 10 Reasons New York City Should Close the Spofford Youth Jail in 2004. Part of the organization’s Juvenile Justice Project, this list eloquently accosted the City of New York for its broken promise to shut down the facility, its negligence in maintaining it, and its stubborn and expensive insistence on detaining juveniles instead of sending them to non-detention programs which were proven to be more successful. Marked by powerful quotes from children whose lives had been scarred from their brief stints in the facility, this list was instrumental in the eventual decision to shutter Spofford.

In 2013, two years after Spofford’s closure, Hunts Point residents banded together to create “Memories of the Future,” a play about their experiences with the facility. Working with Theater of the Oppressed, an organization which helps members of low-income neighborhoods form theater troupes and “perform plays based on their challenges confronting economic inequality, racism, and other social, health and human rights injustices,” residents articulated the pain that Spofford’s continued presence in Hunts Point caused them. The long term goal of those involved with the play’s production was to draw attention to the struggles of Hunts Point residents, and to force City Hall to involve them in the decision making process of future developments. Melanie Crean, the project director, was quoted as saying “We want to empower people to make decisions about what happens in their future. The potential to redevelop (Spofford) means a lot economically, psychologically and politically to the community.”

The Peninsula (Source: WXY Studio)

In March of this year, the New York City Council voted unanimously to convert the land that Spofford’s abandoned structure occupies into 740 units of permanently affordable housing. Described by Mayor Bill De Blasio as “the righting of old wrongs,” the project will yield a $300 million, five-acre campus called “The Peninsula,” featuring the aforementioned housing, light industrial manufacturing space, ground-floor retail, and a new public plaza. The project coincides with several other pledges of investment in Hunts Point, such as De Blasio’s $150 million investment in the sprawling Hunts Point Food Distribution Center and Governor Cuomo’s pledge to tear down the Sheridan Expressway, an elevated highway built by Robert Moses which has cut the neighborhood off from the rest of the borough for over half a century.

Though it will inevitably be touted as a victory for the politicians involved, it was community organizers who led to Spofford being closed once and for all. Hunts Point, being a site of disinvestment, mass incarceration, and environmental racism for decades, is home to an inspiringly resilient community whose members have been steadfast in their push for more equitable urban policy. In their continued refusal to tolerate the decisions which have placed their community—part of the poorest congressional district in the country and nearly 75% Puerto Rican—next to asthma-inducing truck traffic, wastewater treatment plants, and chrome plating businesses, the people of Hunts Point should given credit where credit is due.