Feds condemn conditions at now-shuttered Florida youth prisons
Federal civil rights investigators said two North Florida youth prisons were harsh and dangerous — and likely are indicative of conditions across the state.
Former residents of a now-shuttered, state-run youth camp in North Florida tour a building where they say they were severely abused. The residents returned to the building in October 2009 to describe what they endured.
Florida’s youth corrections system is so poorly administered that children are assaulted by officers, denied necessary medical care and punished harshly for minor infractions, a federal report released Friday concludes.
Conditions are so severe, the U.S. Department of Justice said, that they violate the Constitution.
The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division released a scathing 28-page report Friday on conditions at two North Florida youth prisons, the Dozier School for Boys and the Jackson Juvenile Offender Center. Though the two camps both were shuttered by state juvenile justice administrators earlier this year, the report said the state’s “failed system of oversight and accountability” likely has resulted in dangerous conditions at youth prisons throughout the state.
“These conditions return youth to the community no better-, and likely less-equipped to succeed than when they were first incarcerated,” Assistant Attorney General Thomas E. Perez wrote in a Dec. 1 letter to Gov. Rick Scott, adding such practices “erode public confidence in the juvenile justice system and interfere with the state’s efforts to reduce crime.”
Though the report is strongly worded, neither Perez nor the report itself suggested the Justice Department intended to take further action.
The investigation, which began in April 2010, concerned two large youth camps in the Panhandle — Dozier, a 159-acre campus that had been open for 110 years, and the nearby Jackson Juvenile Offender Center, or JJOC, which later combined with Dozier to form the North Florida Youth Development Center. Dozier had been the subject of intense scrutiny since October 2008, when The Miami Herald reported on The White House Boys, a group of now-older adult men who said they had been beaten and raped at the facility during their youth.
And though investigators confined their research to the two Panhandle youth prisons, they concluded that the conditions they found likely permeate the state’s youth corrections system as a whole.
“Florida’s oversight system failed to detect and sufficiently address the problems we found at Dozier and JJOC,” the report said. “We find that many of the problems we identified…are the result of a systemic lack of training, supervision and oversight.”
DJJ’s spokesman, C.J. Drake, said Friday that the Justice Department’s findings do not apply to other residential programs throughout the state.
Last August, Walters said that the use of physical force on youth had dropped by 41.6 percent during the past two years as the state adopted a set of “best practices” in behavior management. In the past year alone, DJJ Secretary Wansley Walters said, more than half of DJJ’s residential programs either reduced or eliminated the use of physical force.
“The issues and concerns raised in the investigative report on allegations of past staff misconduct at the closed [North Florida youth camp] are, in fact, confined to the closed facility and are not duplicated elsewhere in the DJJ system,” Drake said Friday.
“We have taken and will continue to take swift and appropriate action to address any conduct that violates laws, policies or the safety and dignity of the youth in our care,” he added. Since 2008, in fact, DJJ has either closed or substantially reduced 23 residential programs across the state that performed poorly.Roy Miller, a children’s advocate who heads the Florida Children’s Campaign and has been a long-time critic of the state’s youth corrections program, said Friday he remains unconvinced that the state has implemented meaningful reform.
“I have no confidence that this is not a systemic problem,” Miller said. “Every time horrifying abuse has occurred, we get the same story from DJJ, that it is not systemic.”
Among the problems the Justice Department found:
• Juveniles sent to the youth camps were subjected to unnecessary — and often excessive — physical force, including violent takedowns, choking, and restraints that can lead to asphyxiation.
In the spring of 2006, the Florida Legislature banned a host of so-called compliance techniques and takedowns in the wake of a national scandal, the death of 14-year-old Martin Lee Anderson, who died after guards at a Panama City boot camp punched, kneed and choked off his air supply during a long, violent restraint. The Martin Lee Anderson Act banned the use of stun guns, pepper spray, pressure points, mechanical restraints and psychological intimidation unless a child is a threat to himself or others.
The Justice Department, however, said guards in North Florida used “dangerous” face-down restraint techniques, choked youth, and used handcuffs on children who were not resisting.A September 2010 incident that was captured on video showed a guard who “appeared to strike and choke” a youth who “was not engaged in violent or disruptive behavior.” The guard had “slammed” the boy into furniture and then the ground, shook the boy’s arm, and then tried to force the youth’s arm behind his back, though the youth appeared only to “be trying to avoid further confrontation,” the report said.
• Staff at the camps also used isolation and confinement as punishment, the report said, though most experts discourage the use of isolation for all but emergency situations. And isolation was used, the, report said, for “minor infractions.”
At Dozier, youths were placed in either a “controlled observation” area — the written procedure was to confine the youth for only a two-hour “cool down” period — or in a longer-term Behavior Management Unit for up to 21 days. The report describes the two units as “particularly harsh environments,” where youth were held in 9.8-by-5.5-foot cells with locked doors, bars and only a concrete slab for a bed. Administrators would place a “thin mattress” on the slab at bedtime.
• Guards exercised “deliberate indifference” to the needs of children in their care, including youth who were at risk of killing themselves.
“Suicidal youth were sent to isolation, although the facility rules prohibit confinement of such youth,” the report said, adding: “This practice is very dangerous.”
• Youths may have been discouraged from seeking medical care, because they had to request sick call from the same employees who may have abused them. And youths who were in the behavior management unit “did not receive adequate medical care, assessment of their mental health…or assistance in determining whether they should be discharged from confinement.”
Last July, 18-year-old Eric Perez died at the Palm Beach County detention center after several guards and administrators ignored his pleas for medical attention.Perez’s death remains under investigation by both DJJ and a West Palm Beach grand jury.
Read more: http://www.miamiherald.com/2011/12/02/v-fullstory/2529226/feds-condemn-conditions-at-now.html#ixzz1fQqxryJz