Youth prison fix moves fast, but late

September 06, 1992|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,Staff Writer

The Cedar Knoll youth detention center in Laurel has a new fence and a rejuvenated staff, but that may be too late for the troubled facility that houses juvenile offenders from Washington.

While D.C. city officials appear to be revitalizing an institution they say a previous administration neglected for years, critics charge that the improvements have not come soon enough.

"It is a case of too little, too late," said Brad Fitch, spokesman for U.S. Rep. Tom McMillen, D-4th.

"Most people in western Anne Arundel County would agree that this facility has worn out its welcome."

Originally built to hold harmless truants from the District of Columbia in 1955, the facility has been a constant source of complaints from surrounding communities that fear the frequent escapes.

Conditions got so bad that in 1986, a D.C. Superior Court judge ordered the facility closed, an order that, for a variety of reasons, has yet to be complied with.

Now, Mr. McMillen and Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, D-5th, are sponsoring an amendment to the District's $3.9 billion spending package to close Cedar Knoll by next June. The measure passed the House and is expected to be taken up by the full Senate within two weeks.

But officials who run the minimum security prison at the corner of Maryland Route 32 and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, said during a tour last week that they are progressing toward making Cedar Knoll the rehabilitation center it should be.

The size of the staff has nearly doubled. New programs are in place to keep youthful offenders occupied. A volunteer boot camp serves as a model for the rest of the Cedar Knoll prison population. Old textbooks have been replaced and other school supplies upgraded.

Above all, a new "razor barrier" fence, 10 feet high and bubble shaped, has been strung around all 22 acres of the facility to prevent the escapes that have been ingrained in Cedar Knoll's history.

In the last two years, 177 youths have escaped from Cedar Knoll -- mostly because there was no fence -- and created a recurring headache for residents of Jessup and Maryland City.

Since the $264,000 fence went up last April, no one has escaped.

"This is the longest sustained period we have gone without someone leaving here in 35 years," said Vincent Gray, director of the D.C. Department of Human Services.

Lack of a fence seems to be a motif for all the problems suffered at Cedar Knoll. Constantly having to worry about youths running free, teachers and counselors were unable to concentrate on their jobs.

Recreation was severely limited because some of the fields led to the Parkway, opening up an escape route right back to Washington.

That, combined with more violent criminals and a city administration unwilling to invest in a facility that was under court order to close, led to a major morale problem that Mr. Gray said has festered because of pervasive neglect.

An already demoralized staff went for years without receiving the certificates and awards that help boost morale. D.C. officials recently found a pile of them gathering dust in a locker in a downtown office.

"To me, that reflects the lack of concern and interest in the staff," said Patricia Balasco, head of the Youth Services Administration. "You can understand why morale was in the pits."

"For 10 years, this was a neglected facility," said Larry Brown, a spokesman for the D.C. Department of Human Services, which oversees the district's Youth Services Administration. The fence, Brown said, shows "we are just as sick of the absconders as the community is."

Nearly half of the 160 detainees are serving time for drug possession or drug distribution.

The rest are in jail for a variety of non-violent offenses, the most common being unauthorized use of a car.

The facility still holds 36 inmates who normally would be in Oak Hill, a D.C.-run maximum security juvenile detention center across the street that is one person short of being overcrowded.

Washington officials acknowledge that the improvements may not help keep the facility open, but they said it was necessary to do them to keep the prison functioning at all.

But critics argue that the District of Columbia has no excuse for virtually ignoring the order signed by Judge Ricardo Urbina that required the facility to close by the end of 1987.

The judge ordered the district to set up alternative placement facilities for youthful offenders, including group homes and half-way houses.

"I don't think they made any serious attempts until recently," said Michael Lewis, the court appointed monitor for the consent decree.

"Over the long haul, they have not done a good job in complying," he added.

"Under the new administration, it appears they are trying to do better."

Part of the problem is the drug epidemic. Five years ago, Mr. Gray said, only 30 youths were detained at Cedar Knoll, mostly truants and petty thieves. But when the explosion in crack sales hit Washington, Cedar Knoll began filling up with criminals it wasn't designed to hold.

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