Lt. gov. is urged to close teen jail

Group criticizes her over reports of abuse at 3 juvenile facilities

`A culture of violence'

November 27, 2001|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN STAFF

Maryland's largest group of advocates for children called on Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend yesterday to quickly close a violent jail for teen-age offenders and to allow independent monitors inside all of the state's juvenile detention facilities.

The Maryland Juvenile Justice Coalition said the Victor Cullen Center in Frederick County should be closed because guards have routinely assaulted youths in their care.

The coalition also criticized Townsend for conditions at Victor Cullen and two other large jails that hold hundreds of the state's male juvenile delinquents.

"These are institutions with a culture of violence, and when these youth are released they take that violence with them right back to the street," said Tara Andrews, the coalition's chairwoman. "The bottom line is, these kids are worse when they come out than when they went in."

Townsend said through a spokesman yesterday that an evaluation of Victor Cullen will be completed by year's end and that steps are being taken to reduce violence in all the state's juvenile facilities.

The coalition acted in response to an article Sunday in The Sun detailing physical abuse of teens by guards at Victor Cullen, the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School in Baltimore County and Cheltenham Youth Facility in Prince George's County. The article cited internal state reports and interviews with staff and juveniles at the jails.

Cheltenham is scheduled to be closed or scaled back to two 24-bed facilities next year. The coalition asked yesterday that Victor Cullen be closed and its teens funneled into smaller community-based programs. Coalition members said that Victor Cullen has become the worst of the jails but that they would also like to see Hickey phased out.

The Sun also reported that Victor Cullen employees altered or destroyed more than 200 reports of guards using force against teens. An investigator with the Department of Juvenile Justice concluded that incidents of child abuse at Victor Cullen had been covered up.

In arguing for independent monitors, coalition members said they were angry about learning of the hidden abuse from the newspaper and questioned why state officials had never informed them.

They said they were particularly disappointed in Townsend because she promised reform of the juvenile justice system in 1999, after news articles documented physical abuse by guards against teens at three state boot camps.

"It's incredibly discouraging that after all the high-visibility and political focus on juvenile justice over the boot camps, that these facilities are in the shape they're in," said Jann Jackson, executive director of Advocates for Children and Youth. "We're really back to square one, with state-sponsored child abuse running rampant throughout these large, decrepit facilities."

Vincent Schiraldi, executive director of the nonprofit Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice in Washington, said no one from the coalition is advocating turning violent offenders loose on the streets.

But he said that large institutions are inherently violent and that Townsend can't reform the system until the three largest jails are closed and those that remain open are independently monitored.

"If you were sort of a mad scientist who was sent to Maryland to deliberately make kids into criminals, you could hardly do any better than what's going on in Maryland's juvenile facilities," Schiraldi said. "You'd have to work hard to cripple kids worse than they're being crippled now."

A Department of Juvenile Justice spokeswoman, Laura Townsend, said the agency was preparing a response to The Sun's article and expected to release it today.

The lieutenant governor was not available yesterday for comment. Michael Sarbanes, her deputy chief of staff, said the accounts of violence are disturbing. But he said most staff members were diligent in documenting the assaults on forms, which are supposed to be reviewed by investigators at the department's headquarters in Baltimore.

"The fact that these incidents are getting recorded is part of the reform process," he said. "It's not yet where we want it to be, but it is significant progress and more progress is being made every day."

Last week, the lieutenant governor ordered that 24-hour monitors be placed in Victor Cullen, both to reduce the violence and to make sure the private company that runs it fulfills its contract. She and juvenile justice officials have maintained that vague contract language has allowed the company to avoid required levels for staffing and services. She gave juvenile justice officials until Dec. 31 to develop an "action plan" for the facility, which could include closing it.

Victor Cullen and Hickey are operated by Correctional Services Corp. of Sarasota, Fla. Cheltenham is run by the state.

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