Edward “Eddie” Figueroa, Director at Red Hook Residential Center, refers to the children under his care as “fallen angels.” Originally from Puerto Rico, Eddie has been at Red Hook for 29 years. He refers to the center as a sanctuary, “the hip term,” he tells me. At the time of the visit, there were 22 residents, roughly half of them with special mental needs. The entire front of the main building is crowded with stuffed animals, the idea being that a young resident will think “I can be a kid in here, I don’t have to be a gangster.” Figueroa doesn’t like being part of the group that says to the kids “you’re no good,” or “you can’t.” His goal is to put all his residents in the best situations possible, where they can succeed. He tells all the kids, ” I don’t care what you did to get here. I care about your behavior and your success once you are here.” The motivational posters around enforce Red Hook’s commitment to “detention with dignity.”
Red Hook is a non-secure facility, and runs a very pro-rehabilitation program. According to Figueroa his role is as follows:
“We are here to provide them with a service. The kids are our customers and we have to listen to them, empower them and have them believe we respect them. With my interactions with these kids… I want to be proactive, not a pro-wrestler. I want the staff to be engaged with the kids and not just a turnkey.”
Above: I’m from the Smith Projects in Lower Manhattan, Madison Street. I’ve been to Bridges, Brookwood, Horizon… My mother is a court stenographer. My dad died, he had health problems. My brother is at Downstate correctional. My younger sister goes to Community Prep, she’s in the 10th grade… I’m a “fair” student. I skip occasionally. I think I did better in school on the inside than in here… I’m back because of a warrant violation…a V.O.P [violation of parole] for not going to aftercare…my original charge is 2nd degree robbery. I was 10 years old when things got started… I hung around with the wrong people… I will CHANGE. I want to be something, not in the projects my whole life. I can change. I should have started a long time ago.
– J.R, age 16, resident.
The mental health unit is referred to as the “discrete unit.” Most of these youth are on psychotropic medications. Staff at Red Hook don’t see their role as “purely custodial” but rather supportive, giving rewards, letting kids choose dinners, meals of the month, activities like building a greenhouse, swimming, etc.
Children are placed at Red Hook through New York State Family Courts, family court judges visit regularly, which is relatively rare elsewhere in the system. But Red Hook seems to be different from other facilities in the system. As Figueroa puts it, “we DEAL with the kids, we ENGAGE them, we don’t want them enraged in a cage.”