The Boy in the Bin

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54) THE BOWELS OF HELL

Two hundred miles from his home, a 12-year-old boy wakes up in a tiny locked room. Outside, eight inches of snow hides everything but the sixteen-foot fence surrounding him. The boy is from Manhattan, but he’s serving time as a juvenile delinquent here in Fulton County, an hour northwest of Albany. The boy’s name is Raphael, and he is scared.

The room next door belongs to a 14-year-old, who hails from Brooklyn. Down the hall are more delinquents from New York City: Harlem, Brownsville, and Flatbush. This place is called the Tryon School for Boys; a penal colony for kids. At Tryon, the boys live together in one-story buildings painted the color of lima beans. Each structure has a name evoking an Adirondack summer camp: Briarwood Cottage, Elmwood Cottage, and Maplewood Cottage.

Several months ago, Darryl Thompson, a 15-year-old from the Bronx, lived in Briarwood. On one particular Saturday, the day began like any other: Thompson and four other boys brushed their teeth in the bathroom.

The residents here may not talk during their morning routine but on that day, keeping quiet became harder than usual. The boys struggled through lock-down for two days - prohibited from playing basketball or doing much else. All indications were that the lock-down would continue through the weekend.

“Am I going to get my rec?” Thompson questioned. “You guys won’t give us our rec!”

An aide charged into the bathroom. Whether he pushed Thompson first or vice versa is a matter of dispute, but there’s no question what happened next: Two aides pinned the teenager face down on the tile floor, while a third man cuffed his wrists behind his back. Thompson stopped breathing, left the prison in an ambulance, and never came back.

The medical examiner ruled his death a homicide, but a grand jury declined to indict any of the employees. Despite all the scrutiny coming of this event, still teenagers are confined at Tryon. The terms of confinement vary from case to case.

One morning in mid-December, eight boys wake up on Thompson’s old unit in Briarwood Cottage. At 7 A.M., their tiny cinder-block rooms are unlocked and they trudge into the bathroom, eyes half-shut, shorts drooping past their knees. One boy leans toward the mirror, toothbrush in hand. Another rubs his face with a washcloth. An aide stands in the doorway, watching.

On this morning, no one speaks. There’s no joking, no arguing, no cursing, no complaining about rec time. The bathroom is so quiet, when one boy steps into a stall to urinate, the splash of his piss reverberates through the room.

The road to Tryon curves off County Highway 107 at Perth, stretches up a hill, and splits in two. To the right is the prison for boys, to the left is the newer facility, a penal complex for girls. Kids arrive here in state vans, bouncing along windy roads, past farmhouses and silos. They are weighed down by shackles on their legs and cuffs on their wrists. Nearly two-thirds come from the city. More than half are diagnosed with a mental illness.

The residents of Briarwood Cottage include a 12-year-old from East New York who keeps five Bibles in his room. He also boasts impressive chess skills. At four-foot-six and 108 pounds, he’s the smallest kid here and exhibits a fierce case of Little Man Syndrome. Little Man is always walking around with his chest puffed up as if to discourage anyone who might think of attacking him.

New York State oversees three types of residential facilities for kids convicted of crimes. Those who commit the most serious violent crimes are tried as adults. They are sent to “secure” facilities; the rough equivalent of a maximum-security prison. On the other end of the spectrum are the “non-secure” facilities, which house the lowest-level offenders and contain no fences. Tryon is in the middle: a “limited secure” facility, with locks on the doors and a fence topped with two loops of razor wire.

Of the boys now at Tryon, almost all are locked up for misdemeanors or low-level felonies. Most committed property offenses, like robbery or petty larceny. One-sixth of them are imprisoned for assault or attempted assault. And roughly one-third are here because they violated probation, either by getting re-arrested or disobeying rules. Rules like skipping school or staying out past curfew.

To the kids from New York City, Tryon feels like Siberia. The sun disappears by mid-afternoon, and the snow never seems to stop. To get from their cottage to the school building, the boys pull on hats, gloves, and boots, and walk a quarter-mile through howling wind. From their bedrooms, they can hear guns firing - not the sound of a drive-by’s, but of deer hunters in the local woods.

The kids talk to their families on the telephone, but many never get a visit. It’s difficult to get here without a car. The trip by train and cab from Manhattan can run close to $200 round trip; an impossibly steep price for most parents.

Twenty rooms line this corridor in Briarwood Cottage, each roughly 12 feet by 7 feet. The bed and desk are bolted down; steel mesh covers the windows. Rules dictate everything: how many books you can are allowed (ten); where you must keep your underwear (on the top shelf); how many photo albums you can possess (one).

The boys don’t wear prison greens, but they wear uniforms: red polo shirts with khaki pants. Nearly 85 percent of the kids in the state’s juvenile prisons are African-American or Latino. On this unit, most boys are African-American, two are Puerto Rican and none is white. Raphael is a Puerto Rican.

He’d been incarcerated now for over 4 months. In this time, he learned how to hate. Life in this place didn’t even come close to the Lakeview Shock treatment he previously attended. There is no flexibility and Raphael learned tough lessons in keeping his mouth shut.

In the first week after his arrival, he minded his own business while playing pool in Oakwood Cottage, when three boys approached him.

“Who’s this new meat?” one of the boys name Sid asked.

“I’m Raphael Hernandez,” he answered. “I njust nwas sent here nfrom Manhattan.”

“Hey,” Sid shouted, “we got a hairlip Rican here.”

Raphael swung his pool cue at Sid’s head but missed. Sid and his two friends attacked Raphael, forced him to the ground, continually beating him. Guards came into the area and pulled the boys apart, but Raphael ended up with a broken nose.

“He nstarted it,” Raphael bellowed. “I nwas playing pool, and he ncalled nme a name.”

“Shut up you little twerp,” the guard yelled.

“But this nwasn’t nmy fault,” came Raphael’s protest.

The guard threw a left hook at Raphael’s already broken nose and sent him flying to the ground. He stood over him as if a major beating would follow. Raphael cried and cowered away.

“I told you to shut up,” the guard reiterated. “I don’t care who started the fight; I finished it.”

Another guard came over and the two took Raphael to the medical facility for treatment. The incident began as a lesson he would never forget, and continued as a major influence in his current depressed mood.

Raphael wasn’t the only one to hate living at Tryon. Stories abounded of kids swallowing screws, cutting their arms, drinking cleaning fluid and attempted strangulation with everything from long underwear to a garden hose. The past 4 months continued as a living hell for Raphael, and he rarely enjoyed the company of anyone friendly.

One other person, Jasper Triche, he got along with. Jasper came here from the Queens area of the city and stayed as a resident for over a year. Raphael asked him one day, how he came to be locked up here.

“I started in a private facility in Westchester County,” he explained. “I initially got locked up for breaking into houses. They transferred me because I ran away.”

“Why did nyou nrun away?” Raphael inquired.

“My friend and I read the New York Post one day; looking for news from Queens. My friend mentioned a name in the police blotter section.”

“Isn’t this your cousin?” he pointed out.

“I recognized the entire article talked about my cousin,” Jasper gulped. “The article described a 17-year-old boy, fatally shot not far from Baisley Park Housing Development; my former neighborhood. I dropped the paper and stood away from my chair. My heart pounded and I asked one of the staff members to see the administrator. He asked me ‘what for’ and I told him my cousin just died. That’s when he started laughing.”

“What ndid nyou do?” Raphael insisted.

“I walked out the gate,” Jasper said. I didn’t know where I intended to go, but I simply walked away. Seven weeks later, they sent me here.”

In the year he’s been locked up, Jasper told Raphael he lost his brother to a heart problem. Another friend died from being shot at a party.

“I keep a small calendar on my desk,” he mentioned. “I mark each passing day as well as my upcoming court dates. I’ve got one next week and I hope to persuade the judge to send me home.”

“I can’t nget out of nhere for another 5 nmonths,” Raphael mourned. “I ngot to behave and nstay out of trouble or the judge nwill extend nmy sentence.”

“Sounds like we both need some luck of the good kind,” Jasper mused. “I don’t’ need any more problems.”

Raphael nodded in agreement.

Sylvia’s bed springs continued getting quite a workout lately. Not only from Mark Lawrence regularly, but also from Fred; under the guise of paying for his legal services. Both thought they existed as the ‘one and only’ and Sylvia liked the situation. True, sometimes she needed to use creative scheduling, but from a sexual standpoint, she appeared to be happy.

One of Sylvia’s focus points concerned her share of the legal firm. She couldn’t imagine how much the proceeds would pay her, but the settlement should be substantial. Fred did his best to stall any payout to her. He didn’t want to inadvertently cut off his source of loving company.

Mark, for all intensive , acted like a suitor. He constantly bought her presents and more than once put forth a suggestion they should make their relationship permanent.

“Oh Mark,” Sylvia sighed. “You know I’d like to say yes. Can you give me a little more time? I want to settle Raul’s estate and the law firm interests. Sometimes I feel so overwhelmed with all the issues I deal with. I need to make sure everything is perfect for when Raphael gets released from the hell-hole he is in. Please bear with me longer.”

“Sylvia,” Mark gushed, “please don’t think I’m pushing you into making a decision. I’ll wait for as long as I need to. I want you to be happy.”

The next eight months flew by for everyone except Raphael. Each day became a grind on him, but for once in his life, he worked hard at keeping his nose clean. His only contact with his mother came two months later when she finally made a phone call. She assured him she and Fred continued to do everything in their power to get him out at the end of 9 months. He was confident this would happen. Other than the early part of his stay here, he maintained a clean record with no write-ups or problems.

One dreary morning, at approximately 3:00 A.M., a guard came to his bunk and rousted him from his sleep. He seemed disoriented as he sat up because all around him, other inmates still slept and the barracks took on a deathly dark hue.

“Get up Hernandez,” the guard ordered.

“What’s ngoing on?” he protested.

“Get up out of the rack,” the guard commanded again. “Get your uniform on, pick up your personal items and follow me.”

“Where are nwe going?” he quizzed through sleepy eyes.

“This isn’t 50 questions time,” the guard barked. “Do what I say.”

Raphael acted confused, partially because of being still asleep, but more due to the fact of this change in his routine. He pulled his uniform on, emptied out his foot locker and snapped to attention in front of the guard.

“Grab your mattress and follow me.”

“What the hell is going on?” he wondered. His mind whirled at what he possibly did to get into trouble. Had someone filed a complaint against him? Were they moving him to another building? He mentally grabbed unsuccessfully for the answer.

He dragged the mattress to the end of the barracks where a guard told him to drop it. The guard then placed leg irons and handcuffs on him and escorted him outside to a waiting transport van.

“You are headed back to Manhattan District Courthouse,” the guard admitted. “The judge would like to meet with you.”

Raphael tossed his personal items in the back of the van and the attendant loaded him into one of the rear seats. He sat as the lone rider except for the driver and about to take a 4-hour ride back to the city. The fact the guard told him ‘the judge wanted to meet with him’ weighed heavy on his mind. We’re they going to put additional charges on him? Or maybe; just maybe, he might get out.

The transport van moved with purpose through the crowded streets of Manhattan. At 8:30 A.M., they arrived at the familiar setting of the courthouse. The driver escorted him inside and placed into a holding cell.

“You will wait here until the Judge calls your case,” he directed. The cell door slammed shut.

Finally, a guard returned at 9:30 A.M., and the two entered the courtroom. He looked around and recognized his mother and his father’s former business partner seated in the audience gallery. Judge Damien Williams called his name and Raphael stood in front of the podium, along side Fred.

“Raphael Franklin Hernandez,” the Judge boomed. “You have completed your minimum sentence at the Tryon School for boys, as directed by this court. According to your plea bargain, no other charges are recorded against you. As a representative of the State of New York, it is in my power to release you into the custody of your mother. As long as you remain out of trouble, the details of your arrest and incarceration will be purged from your records. This will happen on or about your 18th birthday. Do you understand these conditions?”

“My client understands completely, Your Honor,” Fred announced. “Thank you Your Honor.”

A bailiff came over and took the irons and cuffs from Raphael. He handed him his personal items and directed him to go into the bathroom and change into civilian clothes while he waited outside. When Raphael came out of the bathroom, his mother and Fred joined him. The guard presented him with an official form verifying him of his release.

Raphael’s nightmare seemed to be over; for now.

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