Time to shut down Cheltenham once and for all

March 31, 2003|By Vincent Schiraldi

WASHINGTON - I recently read a chilling letter from a boy - I'll call him Robert - locked up at the Cheltenham Youth Center, Maryland's largest and most notorious detention facility.

Robert told of nightmarish conditions at the 131-year-old institution that houses youths awaiting trial. He wrote that if youths complain, staff members punish them by locking them in their cells, getting other residents to beat them up or otherwise denying privileges. Fearing for his life, Robert no longer wants to come out of his cell, a dismal prospect given it's the size of a broom closet.

A few weeks after Robert wrote his letter, a melee broke out at Cheltenham involving more than 40 youths. The incident, along with this youngster's poignant cry for help, serves as a punctuation mark on decades of abusive and debilitating conditions that should sound the death knell for Cheltenham.

Cheltenham is a painful blight on our state whose problems are bigger than any one governor and whose awful conditions have outlived numerous juvenile justice secretaries. It's a nightmare that's not fixable, and its closure should be immediate.

Cheltenham's cyclical history is riddled with scandal, followed by calls for reform, gradual apathy, deteriorating conditions and, eventually, more scandal.

The Cheltenham Youth Center was opened in 1872 as the House of Reformation for Colored Boys. As early as 1943, a front-page article in the Baltimore Afro-American called for Cheltenham's closure. In it, the facility's supervisor of education stated that "a year's stay in the unwholesome reform school atmosphere serves to intensify rather than ameliorate the boys' social maladjustment."

In 1995, after extensively investigating the facility, juvenile justice expert Mark Soler of the Youth Law Center said, "Some of the cottages were the worst I had seen in 20 years of inspecting juvenile facilities."

Since then, a girl housed at Cheltenham was impregnated by a staff member; a 13-year-old boy was repeatedly raped by several youths; Maryland's fire inspector called for Cheltenham to be closed because of hazardous conditions; The Sun published a series on abusive conditions in Maryland's youth institutions, including Cheltenham; and staff members arranged for "fight clubs" between inmates.

The Maryland Juvenile Justice Coalition, which has been advocating for the children at Cheltenham for five years, is calling for its closure by July 1. A new facility has been constructed in Baltimore, which could be opened by then if the legislature returned a mere $2.5 million to the budget and the Department of Juvenile Justice accelerated its opening. By opening the new Baltimore facility sooner, the old and decrepit Cheltenham institution could be closed sooner.

This should be a no-brainer. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Juvenile Justice Secretary Kenneth C. Montague Jr. have agreed that Cheltenham should be razed and downsized, as had Lt. Governor Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and her administration's juvenile justice secretary, Bishop Robinson. Governor Ehrlich wrote that he intended to "continue the downsizing trend at Cheltenham to make it a small, modern, 21st century best-practice facility."

It's easy for policy-makers to lose their sense of urgency for juvenile justice reform in the wrangling over the deficit and slot machines. But every night, about 240 young people sleep at Cheltenham, a facility built to hold 180 youths. Several of the cottages are at or near double capacity. For them and their parents, this is a priority.

The system's goal should be to hold young people accountable and help them turn their lives around. Nearly nine out of 10 youths sent to Cheltenham are nonviolent offenders - the very young people we should be investing in, not consigning to a decrepit school for crime.

Mr. Ehrlich and the legislature need to act now to ensure that, by July 1, Cheltenham is relegated to Maryland's past.

Vincent Schiraldi is president of the Justice Policy Institute and a steering committee member of the Maryland Juvenile Justice Coalition.

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