- The Washington Times - Monday, January 21, 2002

The city's maximum security jail for dangerous youths, Oak Hill, is far from secure: 22 of the 122 youths imprisoned there have escaped over the past nine months, almost at will, according to documents and Youth Services Administration employees.
A dozen of them are still at large and another was found fatally shot Dec. 3. Many of the others who were captured had committed crimes such as armed robbery and carjacking before police caught up with them.
Correctional officers blame the high number of escapees on their superiors, who they say don't understand how dangerous the youths are or how serious the crimes were that landed the youths in Oak Hill. Many of the juveniles would have spent 20 years in prison if they had been convicted as adults.
"These are killers, rapists and thieves," said an Oak Hill official who did not want to be identified. "These are not innocent children,"
Security lapses at Oak Hill in Jessup, Md., became public on March 12, when a 15-year-old, awaiting trial on charges of raping two city employees, escaped from the back of an ambulance. City officials vowed to improve security but did little to help authorities capture the escaped youth.
Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey had to get a court order allowing his department to release a photograph of the escaped youth.
An Oak Hill employee described the detention center as a dangerous place to work.
"We've had bleach and ammonia thrown on people. We've had riots. People are getting hurt. We find drugs. But we can't do anything to [the juveniles] because the administration doesn't seem to care," the source told The Washington Times. "They don't want them locked up, so they walk out of here because they know nothing will be done to them."
As a result, employees said there is a high rate of absenteeism among workers.
"People call in [sick] because they are so disgusted. Then we are shorthanded," said the Oak Hill official.
A correctional officer noted that the administration headed by youth services chief Gayle Turner and Oak Hill Superintendent George Perkins has made it appear that these youths are being rehabilitated at Oak Hill.
The officer said their gentle-handed approach ended up embarrassing them when on June 23, Miss Turner and Mr. Perkins took three Oak Hill youths to participate in a Soap Box Derby near the U.S. Capitol. All three escaped.
The trio were captured. One of them, a 14-year-old, was caught in the act of stealing a car.
"They were trying to show [the juveniles] off. They wanted to be known as reformers," said an officer who was familiar with the escape. "It backfired on them."
In addition to committing other crimes, escaped inmates from Oak Hill are often injured or killed when they get back on the streets of the District.
James Edward Long Jr., a 17-year-old Oak Hill escapee, was found fatally shot on Dec. 3 in the 1100 block of Stevens Road SE in the Barry Farms area of Anacostia.
James escaped in September with three others youths by going through a hole in the fence at Oak Hill that was used by others to escape the facility. He was sent to Oak Hill even though he had been charged as an adult with assault with intent to kill, D.C. Superior Court records show.
"This was a grudge deal. He was shot 17 times in the face," said a source familiar with the case. "If he wasn't allowed to escape, he would be alive today."
Miss Turner and Mr. Perkins did not return telephone calls made to their offices during business hours on Friday and could not otherwise be reached for comment.
The escapes were happening before, during and after Mayor Anthony A. Williams formed a commission to study "ineffective services" in the juvenile justice system. The commission was formed in August 2000 and completed its study in November.
On Nov. 7 the mayor announced the commission's recommendations:
Establish a youth services coordinating commission to monitor youth services and the juvenile justice system.
Close Oak Hill and build a detention center where inmates are held in cottages, not dormitories.
The commission also recommended better educational and employment opportunities for youths.
Mr. Williams' office is mulling the cost of replacing Oak Hill. He has not made it part of his budget recommendations, according to Gerard Ferguson, director of research, planning and evaluation for the deputy mayor for children, youth and families.
Mr.Ferguson said the study recommended a more youth-friendly environment than is provided at Oak Hill and would provide programs for juvenile delinquents based on their age. He also said the study recommended better monitoring of juveniles released from halfway houses or Oak Hill.
He said that despite the findings in the report which amounted to a sharp slap on Oak Hill's wrist he did not know why the escapes continued.
"Miss Turner would have to answer that question," he said.
Despite the failings the commission found at Oak Hill, seven weeks after its study was released, 25 youths were allowed to go home for the day on Christmas.
Seven of them never came back. They are still at large.
Oak Hill employees said correctional officers were punished rather than administrators, even though top administrators did not have the hole properly repaired after the May 28 escape by seven inmates, allowing three others to escape in September.
Also, the administration had ordered the end of patrols outside the fences, which would have prevented both escapes. "It [the fence] should have been fixed right the first time or they would never have gotten out the same way. That is not the officers' responsibility," a correctional officer said.

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