- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 30, 2004

Carrying a ring heavy with keys, Jimmy Lewis steps over a faded doormat that reads “Welcome to Rennie Cottage.” The greeting, however, is blunted by the locked metal front door he approaches.

“These are what we call the older, more aggressive kids,” the acting superintendent says before entering the low-slung, red brick building that looks like most others at the Cheltenham Youth Facility.

Inside, a staffer sits in the entranceway, keeping watch. Teens, wearing oversized white T-shirts and maroon mesh shorts, mill idly in a recreational room to one side, kept there by a sliding door with bars.

Down a hall guarded by two more locked doors are a row of small, sparse concrete rooms, each holding only a small sagging cot with a sheet, blanket and thin pillow. Grates cover the windows. At night, a counselor paces up and down the white tiles to keep an eye on the teenagers who sleep behind locked doors.

“Everything has to be controlled, everything has to be structured,” Mr. Lewis says later of life at the sprawling southern Prince George’s County juvenile detention facility.

But control, too much of it in some cases and not enough in others, has been a problem at Cheltenham.

Staff members have been accused of using excessive force on teens and, in some cases, have been arrested for assault. Boys have broken out of the center despite the locked doors and perimeter fence topped with loops of razor wire. Last year, police in riot gear were called in to quell a fight among 40 teens.

A scathing report released last month by the U.S. Justice Department, which investigated conditions at Cheltenham and the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School in Baltimore County, threatened a lawsuit if a list of 29 changes were not made at both facilities.

Those include adopting stronger suicide-prevention measures, more comprehensive medical care, stepping up staff training and making sure incidents are properly reported.

Mr. Lewis and officials at the Department of Juvenile Services (DJS), which oversees the facility, say progress is being made toward those goals. They say staffing shortages and a lack of money are behind some of the problems.

Cheltenham’s chronic overcrowding, cited by DJS officials as a reason behind some past abuses, has been reduced by a sharp drop in the population in the past year after the state stopped placing boys from Baltimore there.

Five staffers were fired for abuse and 25 disciplined over the past year. The base pay of detention center workers will also rise by about $2,000 this summer.

Legislation signed last week by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. requires the department to come up with a facility master plan by January that limits juvenile detention centers to 48 inmates. A DJS spokeswoman said no decision has been made on what changes will be made at Cheltenham to comply.

But child advocates have long called for the state to give up on Cheltenham, claiming the model of one, big, centralized holding facility for teens from around the region doesn’t work. They want the center closed or replaced now.

Reform at Cheltenham has moved much too slowly, says Heather Ford of Advocates for Children and Youth.

Although Cheltenham has cut its population, the numbers still hover well over the goal of 48, she says. As of two weeks ago there were about 80. Miss Ford argues there is no visible effort under way by the state to replace the aging buildings.

“We seem to be spinning the wheels. There is very little movement toward changing the culture of violence in that facility,” she says. “It is really a relic from the past that needs to be demolished.”

Located near the southern border of Prince George’s, Cheltenham is meant as a short-term way station for boys who are awaiting trial or who were sent there by judges before being placed in treatment programs.

From afar, it looks like a prison, with a 15-foot fence strung with sensors to detect any breaches. However, there are no armed guards and the boys are locked in their rooms only at night. Mr. Lewis says the goal is to remind them they have done something wrong, but not make them think they are in jail.

A wide field with overgrown grass runs down the middle, bordered by red brick buildings that include a school, dining hall and the residence cottages. Most are more than 60 years old, and several sit empty, closed after the population was cut back.

The boys, some as young as 13 and as old as 18, come from Prince George’s and Anne Arundel counties and Southern Maryland. Teens from Baltimore used to be placed in Cheltenham, which helped swell the population to more than 300 a few years ago. The average stay is 28 days, but some stay for up to four months.

Cheltenham operates with five persons working on mental health and substance abuse, a problem identified in the Justice Department report. Assistant Superintendent Kermit Moore says the ideal number would be 18. “We’re a little short,” he says.

A gregarious man who has worked in the state’s detention centers for 30 years, Mr. Lewis has a rapport with the boys. One small 13-year-old, wearing mesh shorts that hang almost to his ankles, gently ribs Mr. Lewis’ newly cropped hair, calling it his “fresh new cut.”

Mr. Lewis knows that advocates want to close Cheltenham and that abuse needs to be stopped. But just because there are problems, that doesn’t mean the facility should be scrapped, he says.

“Juvenile crime isn’t going to stop because you say you are going to close the place,” he says. “There is a need for juvenile detention centers. I think we continue to serve a purpose.”

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