Ga. vows to improve its juvenile prisons 'Abusive' conditions cited

Reno pressured governor

March 22, 1998|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Attorney General Janet Reno and Gov. Zell Miller of Georgia reached an unusual agreement on juvenile prisons last week under which the state pledged to spend millions of dollars and institute sweeping changes to improve what Justice Department investigators have called "egregious," "abusive" and "grossly substandard" conditions.

The agreement is part of a recent burst of activity by the civil rights division of the Justice Department in investigating constitutional violations in juvenile prisons in several states as well as abuse of mentally ill inmates in the Los Angeles County Jail.

The department's actions have come at a time when anger at crime has led to a sharp increase in the number of convicted juvenile offenders, but often with little oversight of how prisons are run.

Other Justice Department inquiries into conditions at juvenile prisons in the past three years have led to a court order to ease crowding in Kentucky's juvenile prisons and revealed a pattern of brutality by guards in Louisiana's juvenile justice system who have inflicted sexual abuse, fractured jaws, noses, cheeks and eye sockets on young inmates.

The federal investigators found that almost three-quarters of the young people in Georgia's Regional Youth Detention Centers, one of three main types of juvenile centers in the state, are charged with nonviolent offenses, contrary to the perception that most young criminals are violent predators.

Although Louisiana was already under a 1984 federal court order to stop abuses in all of its prisons, Justice Department monitors in the past few months have reported that conditions in the state's four juvenile centers have actually "deteriorated" and the level of violence by guards in one privately owned institution has increased, according to court documents.

The agreement in Georgia was reached after whirlwind negotiations: Miller rushed through a $10.8 million appropriations increase to hire teachers, guards and medical workers before state legislators ended their session last week, a senior Justice Department official said.

Georgia agreed to the spending increase as part of a package of changes, including the appointment of an independent monitor, to avert a threat by the federal government to take control of the state's 30 juvenile detention sites.

Miller was infuriated last month by the Justice Department report, which found "a pattern of egregious conditions violating the federal rights of youths in the Georgia juvenile facilities." And he wrote to the department that he was "appalled" at the way the investigation was conducted.

Federal investigators said that the detention centers were "grossly overcrowded," that guards routinely stripped young inmates naked and then locked them in their cells for days, that education programs were virtually nonexistent and that many of the large number of mentally disturbed inmates "degenerated" because of a serious lack of appropriate care.

Pub Date: 3/22/98

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