- The Washington Times - Monday, September 13, 2004

BALTIMORE — Conditions in a juvenile detention center are so chaotic and potentially dangerous that public defenders and volunteers are afraid to go inside, according to a state report obtained by the Associated Press yesterday.

The report by the Office of the Independent Juvenile Justice Monitor cited “threats to life, health and safety” in the 144-bed Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center that opened nearly a year ago in Baltimore.

“These conditions constitute a failure to provide youth and staff with a reasonable expectation of safety,” the report concludes.

The main problem is a lack of staff to provide adequate supervision, the report says.

The report disclosed a long list of problems, including the lack of an effective communication system between staff and the facility’s master control.

“Security breaches, such as the lack of telephones or two-way radios for unit staff, causes master control staff to continuously monitor the unit cameras for emergency incidents,” according to the report.

A search of the facility on Gay Street this summer also found many contraband items, including objects that are capable of causing serious injuries.

In July, a boy escaped from the facility by climbing two walls. Earlier this summer, a group of boys barricaded themselves in part of the facility.

The report is the latest document to find serious shortcomings in a juvenile-justice system that has been criticized widely.

The Justice Department, in a report issued in April, sharply criticized the state for conditions at the Charles H. Hickey Jr. school and a second juvenile prison at Cheltenham in Prince George’s County. It said boys frequently were abused and beaten by staffers and other boys and were given inadequate medical care and mental health care.

The new report cites the lack of access to educational programs as a major concern. It also reported several areas in facility bedrooms that posed a risk for suicide attempts.

The facility also has “ongoing occurrences of youth-on-youth assaults” and “many incidences of youth-on-staff assaults.”

“The public defender’s office complains that they cannot conduct interviews with youth because they feel the detention facility is not safe and secure,” according to the report.

Earlier this month, groups concerned about the facility held a rally to call attention to problems.

Sharon Rubinstein, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Juvenile Justice Coalition, said she found the report disturbing.

“I was taken aback by the depth of disarray,” she said.

Ralph Thomas, the executive director of the Office of the Independent Juvenile Justice Monitor, said he couldn’t comment on the report because it was a preliminary document.

His office is a watchdog agency that was created in 2000 by state legislation to check for problems in the state’s juvenile-detention centers. Officials visited the new $45 million facility on Aug. 12.

Mr. Thomas, who took part in the visit, said he planned to release a final report later this week, but he didn’t expect many changes in the final draft.

A corrective action plan must be submitted within 45 days, Mr. Thomas said.

The report’s 21 recommendations include: hiring more staff immediately; equipping staff with two-way radios; improving educational opportunities; providing security for public defender’s office and volunteer organizations; and installing surveillance equipment in the dining, education and gym areas.

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