Keeping kids in trouble

September 15, 2004

THEIR OWN public defenders, as well as church and other volunteers, don't feel safe enough to visit boys held at the Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center, so they stay away. Too bad the inmates don't have the same choice.

The detention areas at the shiny new center are filthy, according to a state monitor's special report. One staffer, usually female, is locked in with a dozen male youths on the wards; state regulations require at least two staffers, and common sense requires there to be a few males around. Not all staffers have two-way radios, so not everyone can call for backup. Not all areas are covered by the camera monitoring system, so there are dead spots where who knows what is happening - in July, it was a fire in a dorm-wing counseling office. Now no one uses those offices in any of the wings.

Youths fight with one another and with staff regularly, occasionally needing emergency trips to the hospital. Four juveniles are charged with attempted murder in one attack in February; in May, a gang broke a 15-year-old inmate's jaw.

The four monitors who toured the facility last month found young men languishing in the Intake Unit; one had been there since June. New arrivals are supposed to stay in intake only as long as it takes to screen them - by regulation, less than 24 hours - then join the general population and start getting treatment and going to school. The kids who haven't made it out of intake don't go to school, the monitors reported; they play video games or watch TV, complain of boredom and cause more than their share of trouble.

Doesn't this sound familiar? Isn't this what the Ehrlich campaign criticized the Glendening-Townsend administration for back in 2002?

The twist is, this center opened less than a year ago, and more than a year into this administration's watch. Of course, officials can complain that the mini-Supermax prison design, which was already in the works, is inappropriate for recovery and rehabilitation, but there was time to make some obvious improvements. It would have helped to install unbreakable glass, shower doors and desks that can't be torn apart to make weapons, beds and railings that don't invite suicide attempts, and ward doors that lock so kids can't run away.

Blaming the past doesn't excuse the present. Even if the design is flawed, the state is still obliged to run the center competently. If current officials cannot, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. should find people who can.

The Department of Juvenile Services staffs the center as if it held 48 young suspects - one wing's worth - yet in past months the population has been closer to 100 or more - up to three wings' worth. The center's DJS administrator quit in June, citing, among other things, chronic lack of staffing.

The department hopes to have more new hires within a few weeks but will take longer to get the 50 or 60 professionals needed.

If officials are unsure what to do in the meantime, they should use the monitors' 21 suggestions as a checklist. Living units need to be cleaned regularly. All locks should be high-security grade. Youths should not be unsupervised. All inmates should have schooling and recreation time. There should be enough staff.

No more excuses.

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