Youths Still Dying in Florida Juvenile Detention Centers from Abuse, Neglect
Detention centers operated by the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) have become infamous over the years for incidents of abuse and neglect inflicted on youths held by the agency. The DJJ operates 21 detention centers and 56 residential facilities throughout the state – several of which have been scenes of misconduct, homicide and negligent deaths.
One of those recent deaths exposed allegations that guards put bounties on youths’ heads, resulting in assaults by other juvenile offenders.
On August 28, 2015, the day after he was booked into the Miami-Dade Regional Juvenile Detention Center, Elord Revolte, 17, was jumped and severely beaten by 15 to 20 other prisoners. The reason for the attack was uncertain.
A DJJ incident report stated that immediately after the incident, Revolte was assessed by facility medical personnel. The next day, according to the report, he was “vomiting and complained of nausea.” The report continued, “[he] was taken to medical and assessed by the facility nurse, who made a decision to send him out as a precaution.” There was a delay in transporting him to a local hospital, where he died a short time later.
A Miami Herald reporter learned that guards were using honey buns as a bounty on youths they wanted beaten by other juvenile offenders. That was corroborated through the public defender’s office. Chief Assistant Miami-Dade Public Defender Marie Osborne asked all her assistant public defenders who represent juveniles to inquire with their clients about the claim. Within two weeks, 15 youths confirmed the allegation.
“I will put a honey bun on your head if you don’t do what I say,” a detainee told his lawyer, quoting a guard. In Revolte’s case, Osborne told the Herald, youths “complained about him to guards.... One guard’s response was, ‘you gotta do what you gotta do.’ The kids understood they had the green light.”
DJJ spokeswoman Heather M. DiGiacomo stated at the time that facility administrators had no knowledge of the honey bun bounties.
“[The allegations] are appalling,” said DiGiacomo. “When these things are reported to this agency, we take them seriously and investigate them.”
However, the DJJ’s claims did not ring true to Gordon H. Weekes, Jr., the Chief Assistant Public Defender for Broward County.
“I’ve heard that [reports of inappropriate guard activities] at almost every program I’ve visited where I’ve talked with children,” he said. “It seems like the staff uses children to enforce their vendettas rather than putting their own hands on a kid. They’ll say, ‘take care of that kid for [iced] tea or a honey bun.’ I’ve heard it a number of times.”
“Sometimes it’s Skittles,” Osborne noted. “It’s not always honey buns. Sometimes it’s Snickers. If they really want a child hurt, and they really want to ensure a kid will do it, the big treat is any kind of fast food, like a cheeseburger.”
By using juvenile offenders as enforcers, guards can “get around Abuse Hotline charges in an unorthodox way and maintain order and control in a situation where they are seriously outnumbered,” she added.
In the wake of Revolte’s death, five guards resigned or were fired for “poor performance, negligence, [and] inefficiency or inability to perform assigned duties.” Seven other employees were reprimanded. One of the officers who was fired, Demetrius Randolph, had previously been disciplined three times since 2009, most recently in June 2015.
“You failed to conduct all required 10-minute checks during your shift,” Randolph’s termination letter stated. “Employees shall strive to perform at the highest level of efficiency and effectiveness; they shall do more than ‘just get by.’”
The 10-minute checks referred to how often Revolte should have been observed once placed in the medical unit. The DJJ is investigating whether guards falsified records to appear as though the checks took place when they did not.
While the DJJ ostensibly took Revolte’s death seriously, the department merely issued suspensions and written reprimands following the February 2015 death of another juvenile prisoner, Andre Sheffield, at its Broward County facility.
Sheffield, 14, died of untreated bacterial meningitis and had “complained of a headache and stomach pain, soiled himself, limped and fell over in the hours before he died,” the Miami Herald reported.
The facility’s superintendent, Vicki Alves, was suspended for five days and her deputy received a written reprimand for poor performance. Three guards were disciplined for ignoring sick-call procedures or failing to seek medical care for a sick detainee.
Their negligence mirrored that of DJJ personnel in the 2003 death of Omar Paisley at the Miami-Dade facility. Paisley died from an untreated ruptured appendix. [See: PLN, Jan. 2009, p.31; June 2005, p.8]. Grand jurors decried “the utter lack of humanity demonstrated” by guards as Paisley, 17, was left to die in extreme pain. Two nurses were charged with manslaughter.
The DJJ vowed in the aftermath of Paisley’s death that its officers would “treat every child as if he were their own.” Yet youths continued to suffer abuse, and Revolte’s death was the fourth in Florida juvenile detention centers since Paisley died. Eric Perez, 18, died in July 2011 after a guard dropped him on his head while they were horseplaying, and Martin Lee Anderson, 14, died after being aggressively restrained by staff at the Bay County Boot Camp in January 2006. [See: PLN, Nov. 2010, p.28; June 2008, p.20; July 2006, p.9].
Several DJJ facilities have been operated by private companies. Those contractors, despite claims of heightened efficiency and cost savings, have also been the targets of recent investigations and allegations of wrongdoing.
In July 2015, a Polk County grand jury issued a report advocating that the Highlands Youth Academy, operated by G4S under contract with the DJJ, be closed. Calling the facility a “rip off” and “miserable failure,” the grand jury and Polk County Attorney Grady Judd cited Highlands’ many failings as the basis for their criticism.
Among those failings was a 2013 riot sparked by juvenile offenders’ bets over a basketball game. The disturbance led to a response consisting of more than 150 law enforcement personnel and resulted in 60 arrests, several injuries and hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage to the facility.
That was not the sole incident at Highlands. A few months following the riot, an adult felony offender who was being held at the facility escaped while G4S guards were occupied with yet another fight among juvenile prisoners.
As reported by a local ABC affiliate, Florida State’s Attorney Jerry Hill, discussing the grand jury report, noted that G4S only paid their guards eight to ten dollars per hour, while expecting to earn roughly $800,000 in profit from the facility’s contract.
In March 2016, the DJJ announced it would be severing its nearly 20-year relationship with Youth Services International, Inc. (YSI), canceling all of its contracts by the end of August last year.
As reported by the Huffington Post, YSI operated 10 percent of DJJ facilities at the time of the announcement; those contracts were worth approximately $100 million to the company. Yet despite its long-term relationship with the DJJ, YSI had a long history of abuses.
The DJJ’s decision to part ways with the company was reportedly instigated by a civil action filed by a YSI employee-turned-whistleblower. The whistleblower’s complaint alleged that YSI neglected juvenile offenders in its custody and deliberately fabricated records in order to influence its lucrative contracts with the state.
YSI has a long history of misconduct and problems in Florida, dating back to its initial contract to operate the Pahokee Youth Development Center in 1997 – where a judge found “physical and psychological conditions [bordering] upon child abuse.” Similarly, the YSI-managed Thompson Academy was the scene of malnutrition (with bugs being reported in the food) and sexual assaults perpetrated by guards, among other issues. At the YSI-operated Palm Beach Juvenile Correctional Facility a full third of male youths were reportedly sexually abused, while at the YSI-run Broward Academy for Girls, company staff deprived juvenile prisoners of food and hygiene items.
Sadly, the DJJ and its employees and contractors have a history of engaging in conduct that, if committed by members of the public, would constitute child abuse or neglect.
Sources: Miami Herald, www.abcactionnews.com, www.centerforhealthjournalism.org, www.thinkprogress.org, Orlando Sentinel, Huffington Post