When state officials audited the Victor Cullen Center earlier this year, they found a mess at the juvenile jail: not enough staff, a failing education system, inadequate mental health services and way too much violence.
The findings were predictable for at least two reasons. Private companies across the country are struggling - and often failing - to turn a profit by operating state facilities.
And the company that operates Victor Cullen, Correctional Services Corp., has a history of serious problems at facilities in several states, and its financial condition has been steadily deteriorating.
The company's most recent problems in Maryland - which include reports that guards at Victor Cullen and the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School have been assaulting teens in their care - have state officials debating whether to continue contracts with Correctional Services.
It's a debate similar to those being held in many states around the country, as the wisdom of having private companies run juvenile facilities is increasingly called into question.
Correctional Services, and the subsidiary that runs Victor Cullen and Hickey, Youth Services International, have lost contracts in Florida and Texas because of staffing shortages and allegations of abuse. And the company has backed out of agreements elsewhere rather than absorb losses by improving facilities.
"This is a company with a history of problems across the country, and we're not talking about little problems," said Lew Wolfbrandt, a Las Vegas lawyer who represented 20 juveniles held in a Correctional Services detention center there.
The facility was called the Summit View Youth Correctional Center, and on June 1, up to 50 juveniles escaped to its roof and pelted guards below with debris. The juveniles had a long list of grievances, including being held past their release dates so that the company would make more money. Soon after the protest, Correctional Services gave up its contract.
The problems cited in Las Vegas were similar to those in Maryland and at other privately run juvenile facilities.
"Almost the entire staff that was working with these kids were in their early 20s, had no college education and had never worked in an institution before," said Wolfbrandt. "These were people who were in no way qualified, and even then there wasn't enough of them."
Among the reasons officials in Maryland's Department of Juvenile Justice are considering ridding themselves of Correctional Services are chronic staffing problems. An audit completed by the agency in June found "a continual pattern of under staffing in direct-care positions as well as in specialized positions such as teachers, nurses, and clinicians."
The company is being paid $78.5 million to run Hickey, in Baltimore County, under a five-year contract that ends in 2004. The company runs Victor Cullen, in Frederick County, under a five-year, $41 million contract due to expire next year. The company is paid $118 per offender, per day.
Correctional Services maintains that it and YSI are fulfilling the terms of their contracts with Maryland.
"I feel we provide services the state of Maryland requires," said Paul Donnelly, senior vice president for Correctional Services' juvenile operations. "We traditionally have had difficulty attracting staff in rural areas ... , but we've maintained our staffing levels as required."
In August, though, the company agreed to repay the state more than $600,000 for services promised at Victor Cullen but never delivered.
An audit of services at Hickey has been completed, but juvenile justice officials declined to release it to The Sun, saying they wanted to give Correctional Services a chance to review and respond to it first.
Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend has ordered juvenile justice officials to give her recommendations by Dec. 31 on what to do about Victor Cullen. But complicating their decision is Maryland's own record of running juvenile facilities.
As bad as conditions at Hickey and Victor Cullen may be under Correctional Services, by many measures they are better than when the state ran the facilities. They were chronically understaffed, mental health services were almost nonexistent, the buildings were filthy and rodent-infested.
That's why Maryland privatized Hickey in 1991 and Victor Cullen a year later.
Like other states around the country, Maryland had high hopes that simply turning the facilities over to private contractors would solve the problems.
Which is precisely the wrong tack to take, said Tom Jenkins, chief operating officer for Cornell Companies Inc., a Houston-based company that operates juvenile facilities in several states.
"You can turn them over, but you can't turn them over and not look back," he said. "These states have to establish standards, provide technical assistance and - most of all - monitor the contracts to make sure the bidders are delivering the services they say they're going to deliver."