Hickey School allegations rebutted

Conditions not allowed to worsen, lawyer says

Lawmakers seek state takeover

May 28, 2004|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

A lawyer representing the private contractor that operated the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School denied yesterday claims by the state that the company allowed conditions at the school to dangerously deteriorate and didn't adequately document all of its spending.

As Correctional Services Corp./Youth Services International addressed the allegations for the first time, several key lawmakers said the state must permanently take over Hickey - or shut it down - rather than hire another private contractor to run the troubled juvenile detention center in Cub Hill.

"The idea that they are going to solve things by hiring a different contractor is wishful thinking," Sen. Brian E. Frosh, chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, said in an interview.

Florida-based CSC/YSI operated Hickey under a five-year contract that ended March 31. The state Department of Juvenile Services has been running the juvenile detention facility since while it searches for a new operator.

Juvenile Services Secretary Kenneth C. Montague Jr. said in an interview this week that conditions were even worse at Hickey than state officials had realized. Montague and other officials said buildings were in poor condition, dozens of locks didn't work and the motion sensors on the security fence were broken.

Montague also said that "there was no budget" showing how state funds were spent and that there were no personnel records left at Hickey.

Several officials at CSC/YSI had not returned telephone calls earlier in the week seeking their comment. But yesterday, John Mentzer, the general counsel for CSC/YSI, accepted a call, saying, "I don't think there's anything accurate about what [state officials] said."

Mentzer disputed Montague's contention that there was inadequate accounting of Hickey expenditures. "There were, in fact, budgets which were part of the contract. We have given them every year an audited statement of expenditures that details how the money was spent, which they are in the process of reconciling. To say there is no budget is incredible."

Of the locks, Mentzer said, "We have no idea what they're talking about."

Asked about the lack of personnel records at Hickey, he replied, "That's probably true; those records belong to us."

The state says it intends to hire a new Hickey operator in the next several months.

But Frosh said that contracting out Hickey management "is the wrong way" to go and that "it looks to me like they have got to knock it down, although there may be something salvageable."

Del. Robert A. Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat, went further, saying the facility "needs to be leveled."

"The conditions are deplorable; the programs are deplorable; and you can't put a Band-Aid on it. You need to blow it up and start fresh with smaller facilities," said Zirkin, chairman of a House Judiciary subcommittee on juvenile law.

Zirkin was among the authors of a measure, signed into law this week, to compel the state to eventually shrink or close Hickey and its other big detention centers, which have been beset for decades by abuse, mismanagement and a legacy of housing repeat offenders.

Other than a state commitment to take over operation of the Hickey School in July 2007, the timetable of the biggest changes will depend largely on a master plan to be developed during the next 21 months by the Department of Juvenile Services.

In the meantime, it should be an open question as to whether Hickey is run by the state or a private operator, said House Speaker Michael E. Busch.

"If things continue to deteriorate, you have to look at whether the individuals in there would be better served by a private contractor or state management," he said yesterday.

The department says it is making improvements at Hickey such as renovating buildings and painting. It says a new private contractor would run Hickey for three years. After that, the state would take over and would begin reducing Hickey's size consistent with the wishes of Montague and the General Assembly, said department spokeswoman LaWanda Edwards.

Sun staff writer David Nitkin contributed to this article.

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