Political Contributions Drove Juvenile Prison Privatization
by David M. Reutter
Florida is moving to privatize all of its state-run juvenile detention centers. The move comes despite allegations of abuse at two of the state’s private juvenile detention centers.
“These programs offer unique services and facilities that should be maintained. We are therefore committed to an orderly transition from public to private operation for the benefit of our employees and the youth in our care,” said DJJ Secretary Wansley Walters.
Questions abound about whether the DJJ’s quality-assurance system can guarantee the public is receiving what it pays for and whether youths are cared and treated for in a humane manner. State officials have acted to douse the fire of unconstitutional conditions by closing three youth facilities that became the focus of scrutiny of their operations.
The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) Civil Rights Division conducted an investigation in 2010 of the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys and the Jackson Juvenile Offender Center. Shortly after the investigation began, the DJJ closed both facilities.
That move, however, did not stop the DOJ from issuing a December 2011 report that was highly critical about not only the state’s operation of those facilities, but its oversight of them.
“The constitutional violations identified in the enclosed report are the result of the state’s failed system of oversight and accountability, which we suspect affect the entire juvenile justice system statewide,” Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez said in a cover letter to Governor Rick Scott.
Then, in September 2012 DJJ announced it was closing the Thompson Academy, which was run by Youth Services International (YSI). That announcement came only months after Gordon Weekes, the chief assistant public defender, filed a motion in state requesting the court to appoint an independent monitor to investigate Thompson Academy.
In the motion, Weekes alleged staff uses excessive force, citing an instance of a staff member breaking a juvenile’s nose and another case where a juvenile’s ankle was broken. Food quality was so poor and “minimal” that staff uses it as “currency” to reward youth for certain behaviors. Additionally, it was alleged that staff “actively smoke” marijuana at the facility and make it available to youth.
Weekes’ motion is not the first time the Thompson Academy came under scrutiny. In October 2010, the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a class action lawsuit that included allegations of sex abuse in addition to claims mirroring those asserted by Weekes’ motion. One of the class action suit’s claims concerned a staff member forcing a 14-year-old to twice perform a sex act on him and that supervisors failed to act on the report of the incident. That suit was resolved in May 2011 in a sealed settlement.
In announcing the closure of Thompson Academy, DJJ said the decision was not based on the longstanding allegations of poor supervision or treatment. Rather, the facility’s 154 beds make it bigger than the state wishes for its juvenile detention centers to be. “Controversy in the past has nothing to do with the decision,” said DJJ spokesman C.J. Drake.
A December 2012 abuse incident at Milton Girls Juvenile Residential Facility raises a red flag about private operators. In that incident, guard Shannon Linn Abbott, 33, was arrested and charged with battery causing great bodily harm. Yet, the day after Abbott bailed out of jail, she was back on the job supervising children at the facility.
The incident was not reported to DJJ until the 15-year-old youth who was abused called a DJJ abuse hotline. Video of the incident showed that as Abbott escorted the youth, she slammed the girl face-first against a concrete wall, threw her to the ground face-first, and sat on her for more than 10 minutes.
“The victim is not showing any signs of resisting. The victim is observed not pulling her arms away from the defendant; the victim is not attempting to strike the defendant in any manner and is compliant throughout the entire event,” the police report states.
While the youth is pinned to the floor by Abbott and another guard, several other employees walk in and out of the picture. “No one seems to be alarmed by what’s happening there. Definitely, there are issues that we need to have a serious conversation about,” said Walters.
The conversation entails turning the state-run facilities for youths over to privateers. Considering the dismal operation history, one can only wonder how the state could relinquish control of its facilities to corporations that put profit ahead of rehabilitation. Bravard’s public defender may have the answer.
“I don’t want to make this about politics,” Weekes said,” but it’s the elephant sitting in the room.” Campaign contributions by YSI to politicians paint that elephant green.
YSI donated a total of $155,000 to politicians and political parties in Florida between 1998 and 2011. A large portion of those contributions, $65,000, was made between 2007 and 2011. Of that, $46,000 went to the Republican Party, which controls Florida’s executive branch and its legislature. YSI contributed $40,500 to candidates for office in Florida, political parties, and other committees in 2011 to March of 2012. The Republican Party received $20,000 of that money.
In closing Thompson Academy, DJJ invited YSI, the operator of seven juvenile detention centers in Florida’s to contracts worth more than $81.8 million, to bid on the facilities it plans to privatize.
“There is a danger,” said Southern Poverty Law Center attorney David Utter, “in privatizing the imprisonment of children” and awarding contracts to companies that donate heavily to politicians.
Sources: Miami Herald, publicintegrity.com, browardpalmbeach.com, Center for Public Integrity, huffingtonpost.com.