Crime / News

Spofford shuttered after 53 years

Joe Hirsch

City Councilwoman Maria del Carmen Arroyo and other elected officials placed a symbolic lock on the front gate at Bridges Juvenile Justice Center to mark its closing.

After fifty-three years as a symbol of heavy-handed punishment and a pariah in the city’s criminal justice system for teens, Bridges Juvenile Justice Center officially closed on March 30.

A half-dozen city officials gathered in front of the mechanical gated entrance to the austere detention center on Spofford Avenue in Hunts Point to announce to a sparse scattering of prison reform advocates and media that the end had arrived.

The officials announced the long anticipated closing with what amounted to a collective sigh of relief, and more than a hint of celebration.

“Over the years the name Spofford came to be associated with all that could be wrong with juvenile justice,” said Laurence Busching, commissioner of the Youth and Family Justice unit of the city’s Administration for Children’s Services, which helped oversee Bridges.

“By the 1980s it was recognized as a facility whose time had come and gone,” he said, noting that conditions for the young inmates continued to spiral long after it was built in 1957 as a state of the art facility with a swimming pool and a movie room.

The detention center could house up to 200 young people awaiting their court dates at its peak usage, but that number was scaled down significantly in recent years. City officials shuttered Spofford in 1998, but reopened it a year later to help reduce overcrowding at the city’s two more modern juvenile detention centers, Crossroads in Brooklyn and Horizon in Mott Haven.

The center’s population had dwindled to a handful of inmates by mid-March, when those few were all moved to other facilities. Some staff remain to clean the compound, said John Mattingly, commissioner of the children’s services agency.

“We have no plans at ACS to ever use this building for detention again,” said Mattingly.

The two lockups in Brooklyn and the Bronx, along with 14 non-secure detention facilities around the city and several recently-designed community-based programs without detention are more than enough for corrections officials to deal effectively and humanely with young offenders while maintaining public safety, Mattingly and other officials contended.

Mattingly emphasized the city’s need for “providing young people with adequate services such as health care and mental health while they await trial.” Spofford lacked these services, he said, adding that community-based programs allow young offenders to live at home with family while receiving counseling and rehabilitation services that help prevent them from re-offending.

Busching said conditions at Spofford “were often considered inhumane,” and “The facility was considered by many to be a blight on the neighborhood.

“Long dank halls, absence of sunlight, poor ventilation, a lack of air conditioning in the bedrooms, made this an unwelcoming, institutional place,” he said.

The elected officials repeatedly emphasized that Spofford’s presence has contributed to negative perceptions of Hunts Point.

Councilwoman Maria del Carmen Arroyo, who represents Hunts Point and Longwood, said “facilities like this send the wrong message to young people that this is what they aspire to,” but added the former jail could be transformed “into something positive, beautiful and appropriate for this community.

“We sit in a community that is one of the poorest in the nation,” she said, but added, “I see this site as one incredible opportunity for us to develop community facilities that provide a positive image to the young people in this community.”

One community organizer who stood out among the elected officials, however, sounded a note of caution to temper the optimistic tone.

“We’ve seen this place close down before and reopen,” warned Rev. Ruben Austria of Bronx-based Community Connections for Youth. “I keep getting this feeling that this building is like a monster from the horror movies that keeps rising from the dead. If we’re going to stop this place from ever being used to incarcerate, we’ve got to do something with it.”

South Bronx residents’ best chance of keeping the immense building on Spofford Ave from reopening as another detention center is to become involved in planning for its reuse, Austria said.

“We’re moving into a new era of juvenile justice reform,” he said. “It’s not enough to undo the bad policies. We’ve got to put in place good things in the community. We need community members to step up in a way that makes juvenile detention no longer necessary.”

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