Physical, Sexual Abuse, and Medical Neglect
by Lonnie Burton
After four separate lawsuits were filed by prisoners serving sentences at two North Carolina juvenile facilities alleging a wide range of mistreatment from sexual and physical abuse to medical neglect state officials have launched an investigation into all five of their juvenile prisons.
Dennis Patterson, a spokesman for the Office of the State Auditor said in November, 2002, that his agency found so much abuse at the Swannanoa Valley Youth Development Center (SVYDC) in Buncombe County that it justified expanding the investigation statewide. "We're always looking to see if issues at one place might apply agency-wide," Patterson said. "If we're going to do it, it's worth looking at the whole system."
The investigations actually began in early 2002 when three SVYDC residents sued, claiming they were repeatedly molested by a staff member and that the prison system failed to protect them.
Another lawsuit involves a claim of serious medical neglect at the Western Youth Institution (WYI) in Morgantown leading to the death of an 18-year-old asthmatic in May 2000.
The problems of the North Carolina juvenile prison system are not limited just to children prisoners being mistreated or neglected by staff, however. The former director of SVYDS sued the head of the state Department of Corrections claiming age and racial discrimination. This suit was prompted when Kelce Phillip Lytle and two other directors, all of whom are black, were removed from their positions and replaced by white males.
There are three types of facilities in North Carolina designed for holding juvenile prisoners: detention centers, youth development centers, and youth institutes. Detention centers are primarily used for placement of those juveniles still awaiting trial or waiting to be assigned elsewhere. Development centers are used to house juvenile prisoners. And youth institutes are utilized as holding facilities for youths who have been tried as adults. The Department of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency (DJJD) oversees detention centers and development centers while DOC runs the youth institutes. Statewide, about 2,000 youths between the ages of 13 and 22 are housed in these facilities, with DJJD responsible for about 700.
George Sweat, secretary of the juvenile justice department, has characterized the statewide probe as "a good thing." Sweat claims to have requested such an investigation by the state in 2000 but was told the state lacked the necessary funds to do so. He readily admits that the juvenile facilities and staff training are inadequate. "Hopefully [the investigation] will point out problems we already know are there," he said.
Headson Ortego Blake, Jr., entered WYI in November, 1999, on charges of cocaine possession. Upon entering WYI, which is run by the DOC, Blake underwent a medical examination. The notes from that examination indicated Blake was asthmatic, used an Albuterol inhaler and was allergic to pollen, dust and chemicals.
According to the lawsuit filed by his parents, Blake was denied proper medical treatment, including the inhaler itself, and that Blake died as a result.
On May 2, 2000, the day before his death, Blake was assigned to a work crew. When Blake learned that part of his work would include mowing grass, he requested his inhaler. But he was not allowed to return to his quarters to retrieve it. And that night, when he told an official at WYI that his inhaler had run out, he was told he would have to wait until the next morning for another.
However, the next morning Blake was assigned to clean tables and mop the floor using "strong smelling cleaning chemicals." When he reported feeling ill, Blake was told to keep working, according to the suit.
At 4:00 p.m. on May 3 (only 18 days before he was due to be released), Blake still had not received his inhaler and told another prisoner and a WYI official that he needed more medicine. He was told by the official he would have to wait another two hours.
But at 5:30 p.m., Blake began to have "an acute full blown asthma attack." The suit further accuses WYI of failing to assist Blake after the attack, noting that other prisoners had to carry him outside for fresh air, at which point "he began foaming at the mouth and coughing up blood and was unable to talk," the action claims.
Not until 6:30 p.m. was an ambulance called, and prison officials began performing CPR on Blake. By that time, he had lost all control of both his bladder and bowels.
Hospital personnel pronounced Blake dead at 7:59 p.m.
The parents' lawsuit seeks $1,000,000 in damages, but the action, according to Blake's mother, Bertha, is more about a higher principle than money. "Justice, justice, justice," she said. "People need to know what's going on in prison with these young kids. She said the last time she talked to her son he was worried that she would forget to pick him up on his May 21 release date. "The next time I saw my baby, he was lying in a casket."
Five other juveniles had filed three separate lawsuits alleging gruesome and sadistic sexual abuse by staff at SVYDS. Each of the five suits seeks $500,000 in compensation, the largest amount possible under state law for this type of claim. Some of the parents involved are asking for separate compensation.
The majority of the claims allege that SVYDS staff member Brian Wayne Harkins, 28, sexually assaulted several youths at the facility, forced the youths to have sex with each other while he watched, and sexually assaulted the kids while other juveniles watched.
Harkins, who was employed at the center as a counselor, has been charged with two felony counts of engaging in a sexual act with a minor. In addition, documents were obtained during the initial investigation that indicated that a second staff member had sexual relations with a youth at SVYDC in 1999 but was never prosecuted. That staff member resigned.
The 14-year old boy involved in one of the complaints against Harkins alleged in his suit that state officials were "corrupt" and "malicious" because despite numerous attempts by some Swannanoa staff members to report the abuse, top juvenile justice officials failed to act. These staff members reported that sexual misconduct by staff at SVYDC was "commonplace," particularly in the sex offender treatment unit where the boy was assigned.
The most recent of the three suits was filed in January 2003 by attorney Lynne Holtkamp of the White & Stradley law firm in Raleigh. "We're trying to move this along as quickly as we can, to provide resolution for the children and their families," said Holtkamp.
State officials have made progress in addressing the problems at SVYDS, said Michael Hamden, executive director of the non-profit prisoner rights group N.C. Prison Legal Services, which is monitoring the situation at the prison. "State officials moved promptly and responsibly to [fix] problems brought to their attention and we're just going to follow it to make sure there's a carry-through," he said.
"I realize that we had some very unique situations at Swannanoa, but I'm concerned about the rehabilitation and education of these students statewide," said Rep. Wilma Sherrill (R-Buncombe). "We owe them the opportunity for rehabilitation and we're not doing a good job at this time."
The case of former SVYDC director Kelce Lytle is most interesting, because he claims he was discharged unfairly on the basis of his race and age. But it was under Lytle's watch that the rampant sexual and physical abuse at SVYDC took place. It is hard to imagine how Lytle kept his job for as long as he did considering the disturbing nature of the conduct of his own staff towards the juveniles in their care.
Nonetheless, Lytle claims in his suit that he was "discharged from my director's position, transferred and demoted in status, and denied the training opportunities . . . because of my race, my color, my age, and in retaliation for my opposition to alleged discrimination."
In addition to the serious sexual abuse and medical neglect already described, an investigation by The Citizen Times newspaper unveiled further allegations of SVYDC staff member improperly restraining students and disciplining them, inadequate living conditions, and untrained staff.
The findings of The Citizen Times investigation only underscores the claim in one of the lawsuits that Swannanoa's failure to hire enough trained staff resulted in "the escalation of physical and sexual violence by aggressive juveniles housed at the facilities and by staff at the facilities, especially in the sex offender units."
Source: The Asheville Citizen Times
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