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Juvenile Crime Still Pays -- But at What Cost?

Juvenile Crime Still Pays – But at What Cost?

by Alex Friedmann

[Last February, PLN published a cover article, "Juvenile Crime Pays," concerning the proliferation of for-profit juvenile justice services. This month we revisit the topic following recent reports of abuse and mis- management at privately operated juvenile prisons.]

The National Juvenile Detention Association estimates that 5 percent of the nation's juvenile detention facilities are privately operated, and the construction of for-profit prisons, jails and boot camps for youthful offenders is a rapidly expanding industry. By slashing operating costs and providing subsistence level services, companies can reap handsome profits from the millions of dollars they receive through largely unregulated government contracts.

As a result of this profit-margin mentality, however, an increasing number of privately operated juvenile detention facilities are being cited for abusive conditionsincluding recent reports of misconduct and mismanagement at for-profit juvenile facilities in Louisiana, Arkansas and Colorado.

Fear and Loathing in Louisiana

The Justice Department filed suit November 5, 1998, against the state of Louisiana for failing to protect juvenile prisoners from brutality and providing inadequate education, medical and mental health care.

"It's incredibly unusual," said David Utter, director of the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana, which has also filed suit against Louisiana over conditions at one of its four juvenile prisons, the privately owned Tallulah Correctional Center for Youth. "I don't even know when the Justice Department ever filed suit in a case like this."

"Over the past two years," the Justice Department told the New York Times , "the Justice Department has repeatedly advised state officials of the specific deficiencies and the corrective action needed. The state has failed or refused to address the Justice Department's findings in many critical ways."

A 1997 investigation by the Department of Justice (DOJ) found that guards at the Tallulah prison routinely beat juveniles at the facility and a 1998 DOJ report cited Tallulah's lack of treatment for mentally-ill adolescents who, investigators say, are dumped into the general prison population where they are frequently victimized.

In a one-week period in May of 1998, 70 of the 620 boys at Tallulah were sent to the infirmary after being involved in fights. Many had cuts and bruises; one had been raped. Another youth begged not to be returned to a dormitory where he said a fellow prisoner had been sexually abusing him for weeks. And a former juvenile offender, a 16-year-old who served 18 months at Tallulah for stealing a bike, said youths often fought each other over food and clothes.

State corrections officials disputed many of the DOJ findings, but conceded that mentally ill juveniles were improperly placed in the general prison population. Investigators said many of the deficiencies were due to high employee turnover (up to 100 percent in one year). Tallulah guards are paid just $5.77 an hour.

Tallulah is operated by TransAmerican Development Associates Inc., which receives $16 million a year $71 a day per juvenile. The company's principal owners/directors include George Fischer, a campaign manager for former Gov. Edwin Edwards; Verdi Adams, a former state highway engineer who has other business dealings with Fischer; and James R. Brown, the son of late state senator Charles Brown.

On July 22, 1998, Louisiana officials took temporary control of the Tallulah facility following a disturbance by 15 youths and the resignation of the prison's warden. A team of 35 guards was sent in from the state's adult prison system and state officials announced plans to create a special facility for Louisiana's mentally ill juvenile offenders. One likely candidate to operate the proposed facility, they say, is TransAmerican Development.

Louisiana has repeatedly insisted that it has tried to make changes at Tallulah and its three state-run juvenile prisons and that Federal investigators have exaggerated the problems.

The owners of Tallulah have also complained that the improvements demanded by the Justice Department would be so expensive that it would put them out of business.

Death By Neglect in Arizona

On March 2, 1998, Nicholaus Contreraz, 16, collapsed and died after being forced to do strenuous exercise at the Arizona Boys Ranch (ABR) in Oracle, Arizona. The Pima County Medical Examiner determined that Nick's death was a result of empyema, a build-up of fluid in the lining between the lungs and the chest cavity; he also suffered from strep and staph infections, chronic bronchitis and pneumonia.

In the days prior to his death Nick had complained to ABR employees about being sick, and had been defecating and urinating on himself and vomiting. Staff members responded by making him perform calisthenics and subjecting him to humiliation. He was accused of faking ill health; even after he collapsed ABR staff ordered him to do more exercises. The last word he spoke was "no."

Nick Contreraz was one of more than 1,000 California juveniles sent to privately-operated out-of-state facilities. Following Nick's death Arizona and California agencies began investigating ABR, which has had about 100 child abuse claims lodged against it within the past five years.

Company officials, who temporarily closed the Oracle ranch to improve staff training and medical care, placed the blame on employees who "totally disregarded established disciplinary policies." Several staff members were fired and four put on administrative leave, including the camp director. The county attorney is considering criminal charges and the FBI has launched a civil rights investigation.

ABR, based in Queen Creek, Arizona, operates seven wilderness/boot camp-type facilities for juvenile offenders the company recruits nationally and charges $3,700 per month for each youth. On August 26 the Arizona Dept. of Economic Security canceled the Oracle facility's operating license after determining that abuse and neglect by 17 employees had contributed to Nick's death.

Nick Contreraz had been sent to the Arizona Boys Ranch for stealing a car and failing rehabilitation programs. According to Joe Contreraz, Nick's uncle, company officials initially told the family that Nick had committed suicide by going on a hunger strike.

Misconduct in Colorado

The High Plains Youth Center in Brush, Colorado, a 180-bed facility operated by Denver-based Rebound, Inc., was closed by state officials last April following an investigation that revealed abuse and mismanagement.

High Plains was originally built for adult prisoners, but after the initial investors went bankrupt Rebound acquired the facility to incarcerate children. The company charged between $140 and $180 a day to house juveniles many of them violent offenders from jurisdictions as far away as Washington D.C.

Juveniles at High Plains told investigators they had been choked and kneed in the back by company guards; records indicate that some youths were physically restrained up to five times a day. Several female staff members were suspected of having sex with children at the facility and two employees were fired for sexual misconduct. From January to April 1998 state officials documented seven cases of physical abuse, four of sexual abuse and ten of neglect.

Colorado authorities finally took action and began an intensive investigation after 13-yearold Matthew Maloney, a mentally ill youth from Utah, committed suicide Last February. He hung himself. When his body was found he had been dead almost four hours.

According to state investigators many of the problems at High Plains were related to low pay and excessive staff turnover 25 of 164 employees had left the facility within a three-month period. The workforce was stretched so thin that juveniles said they had to help staff members restrain other prisoners. Only half the required number of employees were on duty the night that Matthew died.

Other problems were attributed to mentally ill juveniles housed at the facility. Rebound had advertised High Plains as providing services for youths with mental illnesses, although the center did not have adequate mental health care and was not licensed to provide such services. State investigators found 22 youths on psychotropic medication when they audited the facility.

The Colorado Dept. of Human Services revoked Rebound's operating license for High Plains on April 20, 1998, citing unsafe conditions and inadequate care. Company officials called the closing of the center "inappropriate." Said Rebound spokesperson Tom Schilling "High Plains remains a safe facility for youths and always has been safe."

Other Rebound facilities have been closed by state authorities in Florida and Maryland; Florida officials described one of the company's programs as being "largely out of control."

Not Isolated Incidents

The above examples of misconduct and mismanagement at privately-run juvenile facilities are not isolated incidents. Arkansas recently canceled a youth detention center contract with Associated Marine Institutes, a Florida-based company, following allegations of abuse and questions about financial accountability.

In August 1998, a U.S. District Court decided to forestall the opening of a Wackenhut operated juvenile facility in Jena, Louisiana after finding it had an inadequate number of guards, doctors and teachers. The company had planned to open the prison less than three weeks later.

And last year in Florida, Dade County Circuit Judge Thomas Petersen criticized a Pahokee detention center managed by Correctional Services Corporation. Youths at the facility said they had been stripped to their underwear or left naked locked in solitary confinement and prohibited from sitting down or falling asleep.

This is not to imply that privately-operated juvenile facilities have a monopoly on abuse and malfeasance as opposed to their public counterparts. Systemic deficiencies exist in many state juvenile justice departments, largely the result of a politically-driven trend to incarcerate more and more youthful offenders. When lawmakers authorize spending for the construction and expansion of juvenile prisons they often neglect to appropriate adequate finds for educational vocational and treatment services. According to Georgia Dept. of Juvenile Justice Chairman Sherman Day, it is "much easier to get new facilities from the legislature than to get more, programs."

Some of the worst forms of abuse and neglect however, can be found among the growing number of privately-operated juvenile facilities that are accountable to corporate stockholders and not to the tax-paying public. This is due to a for-profit motivation to cut corners in order to reduce costs particularly in regard to employee training, wages and staffing levels. As amply demonstrated by deficiencies at Tallulah, ABR and High Plains, inadequate training and low wages that lead to high employee turnover result in a plethora of problems.

Another contributing factor to the mistreatment of juvenile offenders is a large number of youths with mental disabilities; mental health authorities estimate that up to 20% of incarcerated juveniles have serious psychiatric problems. Private- ly-managed facilities accept mentally ill youths because they can charge higher fees to house them, even though they frequently are unable to provide sufficient mental health care. Consequently, youths with mental illnesses pose a danger to staff members, other adolescent offenders and themselves.

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