Conditions at Hickey shocked Md. officials

Sun Staff

When the state assumed control of its sprawling Charles H. Hickey Jr.School from a private contractor on April 1, it found an out-of-control wreckof a juvenile detention center where housing units reeked of urine, graffiticovered walls, and locks didn't work on the doors of the rooms of dozens ofpotentially dangerous offenders.

Conditions at the state facility in Baltimore County were even worse underthe management of Correctional Services Corp./Youth Services Internationalthan previously disclosed, an investigation by The Sun has found and stateofficials now acknowledge.

Malfunctioning motion sensors couldn't detect escapes. One dormitory was insuch bad shape that it had to be shut down. Scores of youths with not enoughto do were stashing scissors and pens for weapons. Dozens of the adults incharge had criminal or drug-abuse histories that should have prevented themfrom working at the program for juvenile offenders.

State Juvenile Services Secretary Kenneth C. Montague Jr. says he hadn'trealized how bad things were until the Florida-based company left.

"We were shocked and surprised," Montague said in an interview this week.

The state had been paying the contractor about $16 million a year to runHickey, home to about 185 boys, including some of Maryland's most troubled andviolent juvenile lawbreakers. Though the population has varied, the companywas getting at least $60,000 for each youth per year - several times the costof tuition at an elite private high school.

Montague said the state knew about some of the problems but that "a lot ofit was not visible, was not something you could see physically. The sensors onthe security fence weren't working. The phone system wouldn't support enoughlines."

He said that the company left virtually no accounting of how and whenmillions of dollars in state money was spent. "There was no budget," Montaguesaid.

Since April 1, he said, the state has been working diligently to makerepairs, clean, paint, remove graffiti and fix broken toilets that contributedto the urine smell.

A prominent child advocate says it was the state's responsibility all alongto know how bad conditions had become.

The state must ultimately be held accountable for Hickey's failings, eventhough it was managed by a private company, said Bart Lubow of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which aids disadvantaged children.

"If you're going to go the private route, you have to monitor," Lubow said."The state had a contractual obligation to oversee the contract with thesefolks. The fact that you contract something out doesn't mean you wash yourhands of responsibility."

Said Montague: "Look, I'm sure there are plenty of things we could havedone better ... But when things were brought to my attention, we took action."

Asked whether the state should have broken the contractor's latestfive-year contract before it expired on March 31, Montague replied, "I thinkhad I known the full scope of deficiencies there, I would have seriously movedin that direction."

He said the state is withholding $1.8 million that the vendor has requestedfor Hickey expenditures because there isn't documentation to prove the moneywas spent as claimed.

Also missing were personnel records to inform the state whether the320-member staff had proper credentials and was trained to deal with youths.The state had to conduct new background checks on all the workers, findingthat 40 were unfit to remain on the job.

Calls to several officials at CSC/YSI seeking comment for this article werenot returned.

Hickey, on a 200-acre campus a mile southeast of Loch Raven Reservoir,serves several purposes in the state's juvenile justice system. It is adetention center for youths awaiting trial, a holding area for those waitingfor placement in various treatment programs, and a training school -classrooms and all - for young offenders serving sentences that can last morethan a year.

The population, all male, includes youths charged or convicted of crimesthat include assault and armed robbery.

The facility has had a history of violent incidents, including abuse bystaff. Incidents this year include one in which a Hickey youth was allegedlyassaulted by two staff members who held him in his room and repeatedly punchedhim in the face. The staff members were criminally charged.

The U.S. Justice Department reported last month "a deeply disturbing degreeof physical abuse of youth by staff" and "unacceptably high levels ofyouth-on-youth violence."

The department's civil rights investigation concluded that Hickey and theCheltenham Youth Facility in Prince George's County were violating the civilrights of the hundreds of youths confined there.

Juvenile Services Department officials say they are cooperating with thefederal investigators to remedy the problems.

While Montague said he was aware of many of issues at Hickey, he said theextent of problems was not clear until the state brought in experts - such asengineers - after the vendor left.

In addition to problems with buildings, state officials say equipment ismissing - dozens of radios, for example - and that it must be determinedwhether the items are state property.

Montague said the Juvenile Services Department historically has notmonitored its vendors' performance as aggressively as it should.

Youth Services International had operated Hickey since 1993. It initiallywas a local company owned by W. James Hindman, known for creating Jiffy Lube.But Hindman took the company public in 1994, and in 1998 it was acquired byCorrectional Services, based in Sarasota, Fla.

The state's Office of the Independent Juvenile Justice Monitor recommendedin September that the department consider firing the company. The monitorlater backed off from that recommendation, not because conditions had improvedbut because the vendor's five-year contract was expiring in a matter ofmonths.

The state hopes to run Hickey for only a few more months. It expects tohires a new private operator this summer to a three-year contract.

Hickey opened in 1850 as the House of Refuge. Until the state took it overrecently, it had been had been run almost exclusively by private contractorssince September 1991 - first by a Colorado company called Rebound Inc. andthen by YSI.

In many cases, the detention center's physical problems contributeddirectly to safety issues. "If you see a broken lock, then you have to know akid was not safe," Montague said.

The broken locks are occasionally noted in "incident reports," which areHickey workers' accounts of complaints made by youths - or other staff members- alleging improper behavior.

In one report from November, obtained by The Sun under a public recordsrequest, a staff member writes of an unruly student who grabbed him.

The student was placed in his room, but the lock did not work.

"When his door did not lock, he came after me. So I took him to a room thatdid lock," the unidentified staff member said.

The broken locks - in some cases caused by residents jamming the insideswith paper or other material - created an environment where youths "wereafraid," said Catherine C. Douglas, whose 16-year-old grandson left thefacility on March 18 after a six-week stay.

"He would say, `Grandma, I'm so afraid. All the locks are broken, and thereis no safe place to be,'" Douglas said.

Contributing to the dangerous climate was the fact that youths managed tokeep personal items - such as writing utensils - in their rooms, according tostate officials.

"In theory, they weren't supposed to have items in there, but it wasn'tenforced," said Rudy Adams, an assistant secretary of juvenile services.

The state says it is also ensuring that residents are attending classes atHickey for the mandatory five hours each day. The monitor reported in Marchthat there was "a lack of education and programming." On two visits late lastyear, it reported finding no school at all occurring on one unit.

Also, the state says the motion sensor on the security fence has beenrepaired.

A youth was seriously injured last year when he became entangled inperimeter fencing razor wire. The boy was able to break out of his unitbecause of a defective lock and staff did not respond to repeated alarms, themonitor's office said.

The attempt was discovered after the bleeding boy scrambled back to hisunit and tried to hide his injuries.

The boys live in stark brick buildings, many of which are named for U.S.presidents. One, though, is named for former South African President Nelson Mandela.

Juvenile Services officials said it was appropriate to honor Mandela, whois black, at a facility at which most of the residents are African-American.

But when the state took over, it learned that the building's main signspells Mandela incorrectly with two l's.

Montague said the sign will be fixed. Other upgrades being performed by thestate include renovating Ford Hall, the residence shut down because it was inpoor condition.

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