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Sexual and Physical Abuse at Florida Girl's Prison Under Investigation

By David Reutter

In June, 2003, The State Attorney for Florida's Palm Beach County
initiated a grand jury investigation into sexual assaults and physical
abuse at the State's only maximum security prison for girls. In April,
2000, the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) awarded Florida
based Ramsey Youth Services (RYS) the contract to open and operate the Florida
Institute for Girls (FIG) in suburban West Palm Beach. RYS is a private or
profit company.

Since the FIG opened, there have been over two dozen accusations
of sexual misconducts by guards. Two guards have been criminally charged,
and several others disciplined. Prisoners say the staff used their power
and influence to get sex. Candy, magazines, and extra privileges formed
that power and influence. A 19-year old said that was what prompted her to
get intimate with staff. "You hardly had anything in there," she said. "It
was like you didn't feel like a normal person. When I did that, it just
made me have more privileges and have more stuff."

A Delray Beach mother said her then 14-year old daughter felt she
had no choice but to have sex with a prison guard. That guard is awaiting
trial on a charge of having sexual activity with a child. The 19-year old,
who police say had sex with the same guard when she was 18, said she wasn't
forced into a relationship. "He was the kind of person you looked up to,
that manipulated you. He was that kind of person," she said.

Excessive force at the prison was revealed by two recent
incidents. In a month's time, two girls received a broken arm after they
were placed in a "hammerlock" hold by guards. The hold, in which a guard
grasps a prisoner's thumb to force the arm behind the back, relies in part
on "pain compliance." A prisoner may be injured if she drops to the floor
while in the hold. Use of the hold is now prohibited at the prison.

Former employees of the prison say that low pay, high staff
turnover, forced overtime, and workers with no experience handling
troubled teenagers were typical. Employee wages were as low as $8 an hour.
At state-run secured prisons for juveniles, workers in similar positions
make between $9.50 and $10.00 an hour. The DJJ, in its original contract
with Ramsey Youth Services, initially sought to set aside only $7 an hour
for direct-care workers. Currently guards at the prison make less than
half the $33,000 yearly salary earned by guards at the Palm Beach County

The low pay caused a high turnover rate. Sixty-five percent of the
guard staff have worked at the prison less than a year. Guards often had
to work double shifts when other employees failed to show up for work.
Four former employees have filed a federal lawsuit alleging they weren't
adequately compensated for working extra hours.

One former prisoner, now 19, said she thought most of the guards
were immature "like we were." The guards, many in their 20's, were only
given three weeks of training. In comparison, a guard at the Palm Beach
County Jail goes through a five-month academy and needs Florida Department
of Law Enforcement Certification before working at the jail.

A freeze continues on new admissions at the prison. According to a
DJJ press release, state monitors are in place until "all programs staff
have been trained and the department is assured that the behavior
management system has shown a significant improvement." The DJJ said the
prison was safe for prisoners. However, Barbara White, who heads the
public defender's juvenile division and represents some of the prisoners,
said, "before every one of those incidents, the department would have said
those kids are safe. Most of our clients feel very, very, very unsafe
there. And that seems to have been a general consensus for quite a long

After hearing some of the teenage prisoners complain of their
treatment in court on March 4, 2002, American Civil Liberties Union
Attorney Frank Kreidler sought public records disclosure from the prison.
Ramsey Youth Services Inc., now known as Premier Behavioral Services,
provided some records, but refused to provide information including its
profit margins, records of internal staff investigations, information
about its school curriculum, and the names of its teachers.

Kriedler wants to review the company's finances to assure the
company is following a rule that prohibits it from using its contract
earnings for political lobbying. In 2002, the company gave $16,000 to the
Florida Republican party and made more than 30 smaller contributions to
individual candidates.

Source: Palm Beach Post; Orlando Sentinel

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