U.S. berates Md. for flaws of youth jails

Justice Department letter details brutality, poor care

`Constitutional deficiencies'

Legal action a possibility, but cooperation is praised

April 17, 2004|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,SUN STAFF

With blistering language but only a mild threat of further legal action, the U.S. Justice Department has concluded that the violent conditions and substandard care at two Maryland juvenile detention centers are substantially violating the constitutional civil rights of the youths confined there.

The results of the department's 20-month investigation were made public yesterday in a 51-page letter, which details brutal conditions inside the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School in Baltimore County and Cheltenham Youth Facility in Prince George's County.

The federal investigation concluded that the state of Maryland is failing in virtually every aspect of its mission to protect, control, educate and counsel the youths at the two centers.

"In particular," the letter stated, "we find that children confined at Cheltenham and Hickey suffer harm or the risk of harm from constitutional deficiencies in the facilities' confinement practices, suicide prevention measures, mental health and medical care services, and fire safety. In addition, the facilities fail to provide required education services."

The letter, signed by Assistant Attorney General R. Alexander Acosta, was sent to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who during his 2002 election campaign sharply criticized the state's juvenile justice system, then faced frequent criticism since taking office that he hasn't acted swiftly or decisively to remedy the problems.

Heather Ford, director of the Maryland Juvenile Justice Coalition, applauded the report's tough conclusions, saying, "This is as clear a signal as any that the state should close Cheltenham and Hickey.

"The excuses have got to come to an end, and the governor has to act now."

Kenneth C. Montague Jr., Ehrlich's juvenile services secretary, said he was not surprised by the report's findings because "it was verifying what I knew. ... There are serious problems at all these facilities."

The same problems, and many of the same instances of violence mentioned in Acosta's letter, have been previously reported either in newspaper accounts or in thick reports issued by Maryland's Office of the Independent Juvenile Justice Monitor, the state's official watchdog for its juvenile centers.

The monitor's most recent quarterly report, issued late last month, concluded that most of the problems outlined in the past had yet to be adequately addressed. It said that assaults had continued at Hickey at the rate of 2.5 a day through the last quarter of 2003. Cheltenham, the report concluded, "continues to experience excessive violence," despite reform efforts that reduced the facility's population to 100.

The crucial difference with the Justice Department's critique is that it alleges that the problems are severe enough to be considered violations of "the constitutional rights of institutionalized juveniles."

Such a conclusion comes with the implicit threat of further legal action if the state fails to fix the problems. But in noting this possibility, the Justice Department's letter struck a hopeful rather than threatening tone.

"State officials and facility staff reacted positively and constructively to the observations and recommendations for improvements," the letter stated. "The collaborative approach the parties have taken thus far has been productive."

Montague echoed that tone yesterday, saying, "We have been working cooperatively with [the Department of Justice]. Our intent is to go over with them not only the findings but things we have accomplished since last June. We are working hard on improvements and downsizing the population. Things are not perfect, but better than before."

Youths at the facilities, as well as their parents, wouldn't necessarily agree, judging from recent interviews.

Nor would juvenile justice advocates, who say dangerous conditions have improved little, if at all, in recent months. The state is now running both facilities, although up until March 31 the Hickey School had been managed for the past 11 years by a private contractor, Youth Service International, which since 1999 has been a subsidiary of Correctional Services Corporation, based in Florida.

Federal investigators haven't actually visited either Hickey or Cheltenham since last June 12, according to the Justice Department's letter, although violent incidents that have occurred since then were noted in the report.

"The evidence unearthed in our probe indicates a deeply disturbing degree of physical abuse of youth by staff at both Cheltenham and Hickey," the letter stated. "In addition, our investigation revealed that individuals with felony convictions and histories of excessive force against juveniles may, at times, be hired as staff members at these facilities."

The investigation also faulted poor training for staff and said that staff members often failed to report serious incidents.

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