Workers afraid in youth detention facility, blame state policies

April 27, 2017 06:40 PM

Charles Kisembo forgets things now because of the long scar on his forehead, but there's no forgetting how it got there.  
"I laid down on the floor. I was strengthless. I could see my life just ebbing away as the blood just came out in pools," said Kisembo.   

Kisembo was working a weekend shift in December at Brookwood Secure Facility in Claverack in Columbia County, when a boy picked up a wet floor sign, called his name, and delivered a powerful blow to Kisembo's skull.  

"He was much bigger than me. He was much bigger than my partner. Now I was down and I couldn't even help my partner to restrain him," said Kisembo. "If I had been alone, which is what should have happened. I would have been alone with him. That kid would have killed me."  

Kisembo was rushed to Albany Medical Center, where his head was stitched up.  He says the boy had already assaulted five staff members before he got to him, but staff still weren't allowed to handcuff the boy. Workers at Brookwood are never armed.

Kisembo says with security officers no longer in the halls, he insisted on having someone else help him walk the boy to an in-house doctor.  But it wasn't enough.

"More than five staff before, why didn't we do something administratively to stop him from injuring other staff?" said Kisembo.

When kids go on a violent rampage, two or more employees are supposed to restrain the offender on the ground face up using a strategy included in the New York Method. If they perform the technique incorrectly, the employees could be suspended or charged a fine from the Justice Center. CSEA says many of its employees are too afraid of penalties to even attempt restraining clients.   

The union represents the roughly 100 Youth Development Aides or YDAs at Brookwood. CSEA has been complaining for years, but they say it's gotten worse. The union says there's not enough staff to safely handle these children.  

"A lot of back injuries, arm injuries, shoulder injuries from restraints," said Ron Briggs, CSEA Capital Region President. "If you want three individuals to do a restraint, and we're okay with that, then you have to provide the help so that we have these three individuals."

CSEA says only about 40 percent of YDA positions are filled. The state however, says all facilities are fully staffed, but wouldn't give us actual numbers after several requests. The agency's commissioner says staffing exceeds the national average.  

The Office of Children and Family Services runs Brookwood and 10 other facilities in the state. Agency-wide OCFS racked up approximately 13 million dollars of overtime last year. One YDA almost tripled his 57 thousand dollar salary with overtime.

What happens behind the fences at Brookwood remains largely a mystery.  We asked OCFS for a tour of Brookwood, but never got it. The last time we were let inside was when Benita Zahn did a series in 1988.

This time, Brookwood staff tried to kick us off from a public road while just trying to shoot the outside of the facility.

We started asking for an interview back in March, and that request was denied. It was only after OCFS saw a commercial for our story, that the press department called us back with the commissioner immediately available for us. Commissioner Shelia Poole says assaults are actually down at Brookwood.

"Incidents like that have decreased by 32% in just two short years. Our job here is to work with the facts," said Poole.  

We asked about facts. The commissioner couldn't give us yearly staff injury numbers or workers comp numbers. The records office told us it would take over five months to get us other numbers we requested.

Poole says she's had a laser focus on safety and security. When asked if she would feel comfortable working as a YDA in one of the facilities, Poole said she absolutely would.  

Poole says Brookwood was 100 percent in compliance with accreditation requirements from the American Correctional Association.  She also noted the facility is in compliance with the Prison Rape Elimination Act.

Kisembo has no timeline on when he will return to work. He's on workers comp.

20 years ago, he started the job to change kids from violent offenders into productive adults.  He says without tough love, kids are going to come back into society worse than when they went in.

"He won't see a problem jacking your car. He won't see a problem taking your sneakers. He'll kill you for them. Why? Because we have taught him he's entitled," said Kisembo   

The new restraint techniques were put in place to protect children from abuse, which has happened, even at Brookwood. The commissioner wouldn't talk about what Kisembo should have done to protect himself, because now the state is being sued for that incident and others.  

"You can get your staff killed over there. You can have them on workers comp like crazy, being beaten up by these kids. Or you can protect them to do the job they need to do, to protect these kids," said Kisembo.

Kisembo told stories about inmates who earned degrees at Brookwood, others who turned their lives around. Lots of them do.

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Now, these facilities may face an increase in the number of young offenders when the criminal age of responsibility goes from 16 to 18.  Poole says she is excited about the Raise the Age initiative. She says it is too soon to tell if new facilities will need to be opened.  She did not have a number of the estimated increase in teen criminals the agency will be dealing with.


Asa Stackel

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