State to switch Hickey security

Officials seek to end private firm's contract after juveniles' escape

August 13, 2007|By Greg Garland | Greg Garland,Sun reporter

The O'Malley administration is moving to terminate the contract of a private firm charged with providing security at the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School after two youths escaped last month -- the third escape from the juvenile detention center this year.

Until last fall, securing and monitoring the gates and perimeter fencing at the facility in Baltimore County had fallen to state employees. But the service was contracted out to a private vendor late last year by the administration of former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

Records show Watkins Security Agency of Baltimore was the low bidder among 14 companies competing for the three-year contract, submitting a bid of $2.3 million. The contract took effect Oct. 1.

Among other things, the contract requires the security company's staff to respond immediately when fence alarms go off. But Juvenile Services Secretary Donald W. DeVore said procedures required by the contract were not followed when 10 youths escaped from Hickey in May, or when two others escaped July 31. Two other youths fled the grounds in January.

"We're moving to terminate the contract," DeVore said. "We're going to assume those responsibilities with our own staff -- the gatehouse, sallyport monitoring and patrol functions."

The Watkins Security Agency was started in 1981 by a former deputy commissioner of the Baltimore Police Department who has since died. According to its Web site, the firm has contracts with several large companies and government agencies -- including the U.S. Department of Transportation, the Social Security Administration, Baltimore Gas & Electric and Baltimore's public school system.

Hayden Moore, chief operating officer for Watkins, declined to comment on the state's decision when contacted by The Sun.

"Juvenile Services has not contacted me regarding poor performance or steps being taken to terminate our contract, so I am unaware of this," Moore said.

A spokesman for the Department of General Services, which oversees the administration of state contracts, said later that his agency had informed Watkins the contract will be terminated effective Aug. 27.

In the May incident, 10 youths used wire cutters they had hidden away to cut through the fence. Juvenile Services officials said they are still trying to determine how the two who escaped July 31 got out. The youths who escaped Jan. 15 walked away from a gym that is outside the fenced portion of the grounds.

While juvenile offenders also have escaped from Hickey in past years, Baltimore County residents who live near the Hickey school say the recent incidents are alarming to them. "This is very concerning for the community," said Ruth Baisden, president of the Greater Parkville Community Council. "A lot of senior citizens live in the area surrounding Hickey, and safety's a huge concern."

The rationale for hiring a private firm to handle security at Hickey was questioned by state Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp when the contract came up for award at Board of Public Works meeting last August.

In response, Juvenile Services officials said that they had been using Hickey youth counselors to perform a security guard function and that it made more sense to have a private contractor provide those services

The Ehrlich administration two years ago closed down parts of Hickey but left open indefinitely the section with detention beds for youths who are awaiting court appearances.

DeVore said the agency's long term plan is to build a new detention center and a residential treatment facility with 48 beds or fewer on the site. Both would serve youths from Baltimore County.

Hickey housed 75 boys last week. Of those, 23 were in "pending placement" status -- which means they had been to court and were waiting for the state to find them a bed in a suitable residential treatment program.

State and federal monitors have long complained of poor and unsafe conditions at Hickey.

The state's independent juvenile justice monitor made several recommendations for improving security at Hickey -- including installing more video camera monitors -- after the two youths escaped in January.

The independent monitor renewed that call in a special report this month on the May and July escapes, saying those incidents "underscore the need to install new security hardware ... immediately."

The report continued, "Alternatively we reiterate our call for the closing of the Charles Hickey School until youth can be safely housed there or until a replacement facility can be built. The size and layout of the campus complicates security efforts, and youth have demonstrated repeatedly that the campus in its current form is not secure."

DeVore said state officials are considering moving fences to enclose a smaller portion of the grounds of the downsized facility to make it easier to patrol.

greg.garland@baltsun.com

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