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Part 3: ‘Anti-prison’ at root of DYRS problems

Limited bed space at local facility forces D.C. to move youths across U.S.

- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 21, 2010

Deputy Sheriff Shane Painter was on his way to an accident when he got a call to divert. A melee had erupted at a home for troubled boys — about 100 students and staff were "actively fighting."

The deputy radioed dispatchers at the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office in Phoenix, saying the students were "laying everywhere and that some were still fighting with the staff members." Told to wait for backup, he hit the siren but all he got was a buzzing sound. He turned on his emergency lights. That got their attention.

When backup arrived, the officers discovered that the fight centered on a complaint of an unfair punishment for talking in the shower the night before. It began with one counselor, one kid. Then the kid picked up a brick. More counselors, more kids.

At the heart of the brawl, detailed in memos and interviews among dozens of reports obtained by The Washington Times through the Freedom of Information Act, was a core group of 10 young men. The common thread: They were from Washington, D.C. — wards of the city sent packing to Queen Creek, Ariz., some 2,400 miles from home.

The juveniles — who had been charged with felonies including drug distribution, attempted murder and attempted rape while armed — are among 200 others like them scattered across the country, in large part because the District does not have the appropriate facilities to manage them.

Across the nation, states have been experimenting with more compassionate approaches to juvenile justice, but the lack of effective options in Washington raises questions about the success of its ongoing reforms.

A decade ago, placement of the youths would have been a simple matter. They almost assuredly would have been sent to Oak Hill, the District's juvenile jail.

Virtually no one disputes that last year's closing of the jail — a cold, filthy institutional relic of the District's Youth Rehabilitation Service's troubled history made infamous for reports of abuses and escapes, rampant drug smuggling and harsh and inappropriate punishments — was a good thing.

The D.C. Council had mandated the closing as part of the Omnibus Juvenile Justice Act of 2004 - about the time city officials approved the creation of the Cabinet-level DYRS to replace the city's Youth Services Administration and implement reforms to a juvenile justice system that was a national disgrace.

Vincent N. Schiraldi was brought in to spearhead the reforms, and under his direction the city aggressively pursued a juvenile justice model to emphasize the rehabilitation of troubled youths in their communities or in more therapeutic surroundings than prison cells.

Or at least it was supposed to.

'The anti-prison'

The centerpiece of reform efforts is the New Beginnings Youth Development Center, a $46 million secure facility opened the day Oak Hill closed for good. Sitting on 30 acres in Laurel, Md., the campus described as "the anti-prison" opened in June 2009 with Mayor Adrian M. Fenty present to christen it as one of the "best rehabilitative facilities in the country."

It offers high-risk offenders an intensive nine- to 12-month program featuring counseling, education and job training in what is referred to as the "Missouri model," after successful juvenile justice reforms in that state.

But the state-of-the-art center has space for just 60 of the 900 DYRS wards. Only recently have officials begun to acknowledge that the "anti-prison" is at the root of the problems with their reforms.

"The moment we opened New Beginnings it was too small. And I'm struggling with that now," said Robert Hildum, interim director at DYRS.

John Walker, a representative of the labor union that represents DYRS employees, has worked with juveniles for more than 30 years and in the District since 1986. A persistent critic of DYRS management, Mr. Walker agrees that New Beginnings is simply inadequate.

"The limited bed space at New Beginnings is a major cause of DYRS' problems," he said. "Sixty beds are not reflective of the number of youth committed to DYRS."

The arrangement — by necessity as much as by design — leaves some 500 juveniles either in home placement or at group homes in the District. About 130 or so juveniles are in the custody of the city's adult detention system.

That leaves another 200 youths arrested for violent offenses, for sexual-related crimes or needing drug rehabilitation services to be shuffled among Residential Treatment Centers across the country, such as Canyon State in Arizona, at costs of from $250 to $300 per youth, per day. The number of committed juveniles in such facilities has nearly doubled since March 2009, when there were 110 DYRS wards at the centers.

"The fact that we have a few hundred of our youth in RTCs spread across the country, the fact that we have a 60-bed facility here in D.C., I think is disturbing to me that we send so many of our youth out of the District," Mr. Hildum said.

The youths treated out of state inevitably return. In need of transitional services of their own, they are added to a population of DYRS wards already in community placement, settings where a recent report by the D.C. attorney general's office said services were found lacking and oversight was inadequate.

Some say the arrangement also has left the District with an increasing juvenile crime problem. An analysis by The Times found that in the year from Sept. 1, 2009, to Aug. 31, at least 15 city wards were among the 110 people publicly identified by police or prosecutors as being arrested for or charged with homicide. Another 14 city wards were among the 130 publicly identified homicide victims.

In some cases, Mr. Hildum says, DYRS officials are not even aware that youth have returned to the District from out-of-state facilities. Not to mention that while they are at out-of-state facilities, DYRS has little control over what happens to them.

The D.C. youths who participated in the Arizona melee, for example, spent the three days after the fight in the Maricopa County Jail run by Sheriff Joe Arpaio — "America's toughest sheriff" — and were released without being formally charged. They were on their own for several more days before Canyon State officials caught them and arranged for them to be transported back to the District.

When they got to Thurgood Marshall Baltimore-Washington International Airport, at least one of the group broke away from an escort until airport security apprehended him and DYRS officers took him back into custody.

The youths, as is common with those described as "awaiting placement," were taken to New Beginnings. And that became a problem in itself.

New Beginnings

Mr. Schiraldi, who declined to be interviewed for this series, left the District in January to run the New York City Department of Probation. His like-minded colleague and former chief of staff, Marc Schindler, was named his interim replacement, but he too has since been replaced.

One day last spring, Mr. Schindler led a tour of New Beginnings that is familiar to any politician, parent, advocate or journalist who has visited the campus. To great effect, the tour begins at the facility that New Beginnings replaced: Oak Hill Youth Center.

Mr. Schindler, a lawyer with a background in youth advocacy, trudged across an overgrown field of grass and weeds, cautioning his visitors to be on the lookout for snakes. A tall fence topped with 15- to 20-foot-high coils of razor wire surrounds a low, wide brick building and a brown barracks-style facility and a metal trailer that used to contain dorm rooms.

He was eager to talk about how bad things had gotten at Oak Hill before the D.C. Council mandated its closure. He talked of overcrowding, abuse and lack of community programming. Inside the facility, he described a world where dozens of youths would be housed in daylong lockdown situations, or in groupings that mixed kids of differing status — endangering less violent ones and enticing the more violent to take advantage of others.

"There would be a television in a cage that would be blaring, 20 jaws broken per month and staff with little training," he said. "It was an environment that can best be described as loud, chaotic and toxic."

Individual rooms resembled jail cells, with metal furniture, toilets and sinks. Down the hall were day rooms where kids could socialize. In the middle of each unit was a security glass-enclosed office for staff that had bad sight lines and blind spots, Mr. Schindler said.

"Kids peed and crapped on the floor if they did not have a toilet in their room and couldn't get out," he said. "There was nothing good going on."

A 1985 lawsuit known widely as the Jerry M. case represented a class of detained and committed children confined at the District's facilities for juveniles and contended that the city and various city officials failed to provide appropriate care, rehabilitation and treatment. The agency is still under the purview of a court monitor, but conditions at Oak Hill remained dismal for decades until its closure.

A short distance from the decrepit former juvenile jail, New Beginnings practically sparkles in the sunshine of a bright clear day. The concept was to build a facility that is smaller, more homelike and based on a group rehabilitative process, Mr. Schindler said. "It's got to be clean, safe and orderly or you can forget rehabilitation," he said.

Kids are housed 20 to a unit at New Beginnings. Each unit is comprised of two, 10-person pods for kids who sleep in carpeted dorm rooms with blackboards, desks and chairs and secure windows that let in air and light. The units feature wood beams on the ceilings and exposed ventilation. There are works of art on the painted walls, carpeting and recreational options including a pingpong table. The dorm room furniture and the chairs and sofas in the common areas are made from wood and upholstery.

While Oak Hill had a school, gymnasium and cafeteria all located in separate buildings with the unintended consequence of creating angles and hiding spots, New Beginnings features a more integrated layout that lends an open, campuslike feel to the place. The outdoor recreational areas are connected by landscaped paths that are well-lit at night. A pristine asphalt basketball court with nylon nets on the hoops looks brand new.

The gymnasium has wood floors, bleachers and Plexiglas backboards at each end of the basketball court.

"We don't want them to feel like it's a prison, even though they are locked up," Mr. Schindler said.

Awaiting placement

The kids involved in the Arizona melee landed at New Beginnings while DYRS officials decided where to put them next. Four of them promptly escaped.

Much of the trouble that reportedly has come from New Beginnings — a rash of early escapes from the facility, property damage and a riot among the detained youths — has been from the population that is awaiting placement. In most cases, those are youths who had their community placement revoked or were rearrested for violent offenses.

Last month, New Beginnings had a population that was 10 over its capacity, at 70 youths — 29 of whom were "awaiting placement."

The high number temporarily housed at New Beginnings left room for only 42 youths in the renowned rehabilitative program that the facility was designed to offer — a situation Mr. Hildum described as "distressing."

"The only place we have to put kids awaiting placement is New Beginnings," he said.

With a steady stream of high-risk youths coming into the system, but with nowhere to put them, DYRS ends up creating ad hoc spaces on campus to hold kids who dont have a place in the New Beginnings program.

"They know they are not going to be there long, and they cause problems," he said. "You cant have dozens of kids passing through there. The facility cannot fulfill the promises we are making."

Mr. Walker agrees that relying on New Beginnings as a temporary holding facility makes it less effective.

"No structure is the fundamental problem," he said. "Youth are commingled with rival youth. It is just a holding place. There's no programming for community placement. The unit is simply a revolving door. And once the youth realizes that there is a revolving door, there is no incentive to change behavior."

Mr. Hildum seemed puzzled that the District built such a small facility in the first place. He said that as far as he could tell, the capacity was based on a recommendation that took up a paragraph of an 11-page report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

"I'm perplexed that we moved forward based on this, what I consider, fairly thin report."

The report relied on crime data indicating that about 20 percent of the 260 youths estimated to be committed each year were convicted of offenses severe enough to require secure detention. But juvenile crime, especially serious crime, has spiked since 2006 when the calculations were made and by 2008 the number of commitments shot up to 340.

Asked why the facility was not built larger, Mr. Hildum said: "The concept is, 'If you build it, they will come.' So the theory is, if you build big facilities, you will fill them. The problem is, if you don't build it, they still come."

A recent report by D.C. Attorney General Peter J. Nickles took aim at the overcrowding problem at New Beginnings. "To address this issue," the Nickles report said, "DYRS needs a 20-30 bed secure facility for aftercare violators and another 15-20 bed secure facility for those awaiting placement."

All signs point to the Arizona bunch eventually coming home to a system not equipped to handle them. After their repeated escapes and other disruptions, the kids at the center of the Canyon State melee were recaptured and ultimately shipped to secure facilities in other states — again.

They eventually returned to the District and committed new crimes:

In March, 19-year-old Jamal Hamilton was charged with armed robbery and assault with a dangerous weapon. In July, 19-year-old Kenneth Garner pleaded guilty to unauthorized use of a vehicle and later was sentenced to 30 months of youth confinement. That same month, 19-year-old Rashad Hough was charged with drug distribution while armed. Last month, he pleaded guilty to attempted distribution of cocaine and is due to be sentenced in December.

All three have had extensive enrollments in the juvenile system, at both Oak Hill and New Beginnings.

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