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Suicides, Staff Negligence Plague Private Arkansas Juvenile Prison

In October 2001, a just-completed state investigation concluded that Houston-based Cornell Company, the private firm that runs Arkansas's Alexander Youth Services Center, was negligent for failing to monitor an at-risk youth who committed suicide. The suicide was the second in less than four months at the facility, and the third since 1997.

The latest suicide occurred on September 15, 2001, when 15 year old Kenneth McClain hanged himself in his cellthe very same cell in which a 16 year old boy hanged himself only months earlier. Both boys were "at-risk" prisoners, meaning a guard was supposed to have been watching them at least every 15 minutes.

But in the most recent case, investigators learned that McClain was left unsupervised for over two hours while staff had a meeting.

"We are tremendously frustrated that we are once again discussing an issue like this with Cornell," Arkansas Department of Human Services spokesman Joe Quinn said. "There is no excuse at all for juveniles not being checked in an appropriate time frame." Quinn labeled the staff's negligence "inexcusable."

As part of the probe, DHS investigator Barabara Ausbrooks viewed several surveillance tapes from the facility. Her report found that not only were dormitories inadequately staffed, but "there were several children on close observation and suicide watch. It was clear the the mandatory 15-minute checks were not being done," Ausbrooks wrote.

Cornell claims to have "beefed up" its facilities, training and security since McCain's suicide, noting that it has removed several bags of contraband from the living quarters of the juveniles assigned to Alexander. But Arkansas state Sen. Kevin Smith (D) says all these changes "don't mean anything . . . unless you have people observing these kids 24 hours a day."

But details from the night of McCain's suicide are disturbing. A report on the suicide stated that other prisoners were taunting McCain for over an hour, shouting calls of "Do it, do it" and "Kill yourself, kill youself" over and over. No guard or staff member ever intervened. The report said that McCain had earlier threatened to kill himself and then covered up his cell window. Guards failed to check on him even after their calls from the end of the tier failed to get a reponse.

McCain killed himself by the very same method and in the very same cell as a 16-year-old boy only months earlier.

The Arkansas State Police, DHS and Cornell are investigating McCain's death. Cornell spokesman Paul Doucette said the company is working with state officials to "find out how the boy died." He added that Cornell is "working cooperatively with the state to make the Alexander Youth Services Center a model juvenile program."

In addition to the suicides, the Alexander facility has other problems almost as disturbing. There are no sprinklers anywhere in the facility. And since the doors are obviously locked, the kids are sitting ducks should a fire break out. Cornell estimates that bringing the facility up to fire code would cost about $610,000, less than half the cost of the $1.41 million in repairs the company says are needed at Alexander. The building was built many years ago, well before fire codes required sprinklers.

Although appropriately saying that "We are all troubled by the suicides," Quinn's next sentence was mystifying to say the least: "But we still have confidence in Cornell."

Arkansas is paying Cornell Company $13 million a year to run the Alexander lockup, which is about half of what it cost the state to run it themselves. The state is planning to use the windfall to build yet more juvenile facilities. Which is perhaps the reason for all the "confidence" in Cornell. McCain's father, Kenneth McClain Sr. tried to visit his son on the day that he committed suicide, but was turned away by officials who said the boy could not receive a visit because he had been in an altercation and had been moved to another unit.

"If they would have just let me visit with my son, I think that would have made all the difference in the world to him," said McCain Sr. "He probably would have loved to see my face. That would have been like sunshine after a rainy day."

Several state senators are skeptical of Cornell's continued operation of the Alexander facility, which has been described as a "snake pit." Sen. Jay Bradford (D) said Cornell must improve, but did not call for termination of the company's contract. "I'm just totally suprised that someone who is supposedly in this business and has been for so many years would make such basic mistakes," Bradford said.

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