- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 20, 2003

Critics of Cheltenham Youth Facility, Maryland's oldest and largest juvenile detention center, have reiterated calls to close the center in the wake of an inmate uprising on Saturday.
"This is going to be about a good a time as any to close Cheltenham," said Vincent Schiraldi, president of the Justice Policy Institute and member of the Maryland Juvenile Justice Coalition (MJJC). "They've got to make it happen."
One boy suffered a minor head injury when more than 40 inmates were involved in a fight Saturday afternoon. Officers from the Calvert County Sheriff's Office, Maryland State Police and Prince George's County Police Department responded in riot gear and had the incident under control within an hour.
Lee Towers, spokesman for the Maryland Juvenile Justice Department, said Maryland State Police are investigating and criminal charges will be filed. He said that fights at the center were common but incidents involving property damage were "very uncommon," noting that windows and computers were smashed during the uprising.
Cheltenham, along with other elements of the state's juvenile-justice system, has weathered criticism and scrutiny at least since 1995, when a national advocate for youth offenders declared it one of the worst he had inspected. The center is supposed to house only boys between 14 and 18 years old.
In recent years, a 13-year-old boy was sexually assaulted by other inmates and a staff member impregnated a girl who had been housed temporarily at the all-boys facility. Staff members also have been accused of arranging fights between boys.
A March 12 population count showed that Cheltenham housed 230 boys, 50 more than its rated capacity.
Mr. Schiraldi said now is a "key time" in determining Cheltenham's future, noting that a 144-bed juvenile detention center is set to open in Baltimore this year and two, 24-bed facilities are to open in Hagerstown and on the southern Eastern Shore.
"Large institutions really do not serve the needs of the youths," Mr. Schiraldi said. "The overcrowding leads to a kind of tension and hostility which leads to incidents like the one that happened Saturday."
The new facilities will "provide tremendous relief to Cheltenham," but little can be done to avoid overcrowding, Mr. Towers said.
"We cannot refuse to take any child committed to this department," he said.
The National Mental Health Association, a member of the MJJC, also supports closing Cheltenham. But instead of building more facilities, the NMHA would rather see funds devoted to more community programs.
"Children and youths should be with families," said Oscar Morgan, a senior NMHA consultant. "Efforts should be made to keep families intact. Let's take this money and put it into sustaining and strengthening families."
In his campaign, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. called for downsizing and renovating Cheltenham to "make it a small, modern, 21st-century best-practice facility," his juvenile justice proposal said.
Heather Ford, director of the MJJC, said several factors including overcrowding and lack of a trained staff contribute to violent behavior at Cheltenham.
"It only perpetuates a negative behavior," Miss Ford said. "None [of the state's other juvenile detention centers] have the severity of the problems that we have at Cheltenham. Cheltenham is a place where kids go to get beat up. There's a lot of violence within those walls."
Maryland's juvenile justice system came under close scrutiny after the Baltimore Sun in 1999 published a series of articles about brutality by guards and other violence at several youth boot camps, a program that was backed by Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.

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