Hickey turns a violent page

School: Officials seek a new contractor and new formula to fix problems at the state's largest juvenile detention center.

March 30, 2004|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,SUN STAFF

The description reads like a riot scene from a prison movie: inmates on a rampage, attacking each other with chairs and mop handles. A guard fuels the chaos by opening a locked door to let one side attack the other. Another guard kicks through two doors in pursuit of an inmate, who repels him with a fire extinguisher.

Substitute the word students for inmates and you've got reality, as depicted in a report on Incident 11473 at the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School for juveniles, in Baltimore County. The fight was Aug. 3, and one youth suffered a broken jaw, one had a skull fracture, and one incurred serious eye and facial injuries. Two staff members were fired.

Two months later, the security chief who reported the incident was fired after wrecking a van loaded with Hickey residents on their way to court, some of whom were sitting on milk crates.

FOR THE RECORD - Because of inaccurate information from state officials, an article in Tuesday's editions of The Sun incorrectly reported that the chief of security at the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School was fired last fall after wrecking a van carrying students. In fact, he was placed on administrative leave with pay by the company running Hickey, Youth Services International, and did not lose his job until YSI's contract expired this week.
The Sun regrets the error.

Violence and foul-ups are nothing new at Hickey. Housing about 260 youths, the state's largest juvenile detention center has long been a symbol of what ails Maryland's juvenile justice system.

This week, Hickey reaches a crossroads. Tomorrow is the last day it will be run by Youth Services International, a subsidiary of Correctional Services Corp. which has managed the place for nearly 11 years. State officials will keep operations going while choosing a new contractor to take over in July.

The hope is that a newcomer will solve Hickey's problems, though this may be the last chance for the private sector to get it right. Proposed legislation would require the state to take over Hickey for good in July 2007, when the population would be cut to about one-fifth of its current size.

But state and corporate officials have claimed before to have discovered the formula to fix Hickey, only to founder time and again.

House of Refuge

As juvenile facilities go, the sprawling campus of Hickey is something of a hybrid - a detention center for youths awaiting trial, a holding area for those awaiting placement in various treatment programs, and a training school, classrooms and all, for young offenders serving sentences that can last more than a year.

The population includes some of the toughest young offenders in the system, charged or convicted of crimes that include assault and armed robbery.

It began in Baltimore in 1850 as the groundbreaking House of Refuge, an early attempt to keep juveniles out of adult jails, and moved to its present site near Glen Arm in 1910.

Its surroundings are bucolic - rolling, wooded hills and horse pastures - but its high chain-link fences crowned by razor wire and the bleak, lock-up dormitory rooms give the place its penitentiary feel.

The state decided to try privatization at Hickey in 1991 for the same reasons that it may end up ditching the concept: The place was getting horrible reviews, and many juveniles were coming out more hardened than when they entered.

Rebound, a for-profit firm from Brush, Colo., won the first contract with promises of great achievements, only to be fired less than two years later after a rash of escapes.

Youth Services International (YSI), a local company at the time, was then touted as the solution in 1993. Founder W. James Hindman was better known as the man who created Jiffy Lube.

"We plan to turn these kids into tax-paying winners," Hindman boasted to legislators in his initial pitch for the job. "The kids are going to love it, you are going love it, and the state of Maryland will be proud of the initiatives you have taken to set this program on a high and lofty road."

The company's tenure instead became another cautionary tale. A year into the deal, critics were grumbling about unfulfilled promises, and within a few years more Hindman's company was in financial difficulty.

`A significant change'

Correctional Services Corp. seemed to be the perfect rescuer, buying the struggling YSI in early 1999, just as the company was winning a new five-year contract at Hickey, the same one that expires this week.

It didn't take long for problems to surface. Workers complained of short staffing. A $7-an-hour dishwasher was serving as a guard when one of the juveniles he was supervising was involved in a sexual assault. There were escapes and beatings. Meanwhile, Correctional Services was being sued in other states for violent incidents at its facilities.

"All of us would agree that there was a significant change when YSI was taken over by CSC," said Maryland Juvenile Services Secretary Kenneth C. Montague Jr., who used to track Hickey's woes as a reform-minded state delegate. His department is now seeking a refund of about $1.5 million for poor performance.

By last May, a state report found that instances of child abuse or neglect were taking place about once a week. In addition, 2.5 assaults were occurring daily, not counting the possibility of "many other cases that go unreported by staff and youth for fear of retaliation."

The report heightened state attention but didn't end the problems.

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