Whatever it takes

August 05, 2005

IT'S A GOOD thing the Justice Department is investigating the troubled detention wing at the Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center. Just Wednesday, a detainee was hospitalized after another youth hit him with a chair, causing severe injuries to his face, eye and neck.

The children at the city's detention center are not yet guilty under the law - they are waiting to appear in court to answer charges. Some are there because their parents haven't yet been found to pick them up. They are not there to be brutalized, or to be taught further criminal behavior, though that is what continues to happen, according to state monitors' reports, defense attorneys and advocates.

The federal investigators are examining complaints that youths have been improperly held in seclusion (think solitary confinement) for days and for punishment, not as a temporary cooling-off time and for therapeutic purposes, and that the facility lacks schooling and other necessary programs. They are from the same federal office that in 2004 excoriated DJS' management of its Charles H. Hickey Jr. and Cheltenham facilities. Sadly, we expect they will find more of the same at the city justice center.

The city detention facility, not even two years open, has been riddled with trouble. Quarterly state monitors' reports cite steadily high violence rates; some attacks are so serious that children have had to be hospitalized. Monitors have found apparently doctored facility reports, including one pre-filled-out form noting a child's stay in seclusion - for the next three days. Department rules, which all staff supposedly follow, require workers to check on children in seclusion every hour until they calm down, then return them to their ward.

DJS deeply downsized Cheltenham and said it will do the same at Hickey by year's end. At the city center, the department says it has improved services and schooling. But the continued problems with safety and security - children have run away from the prison - are unacceptable. If another biting federal report is what it takes to fix this system, bring it on.

Meanwhile, who is running Hickey? Apparently a youth was gang-raped a week or so ago but didn't tell the authorities for fear of reprisal. He did write about the assault in a letter to his mother; a teacher read it and alerted Hickey staff. The youngster still won't spill the beans on who his attackers were. He evidently believes he has more reason to fear them than to trust in the protection of DJS.

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