Hickey turns a violent page

Sun Staff

The description reads like a riot scene from a prison movie: inmates on arampage, attacking each other with chairs and mop handles. A guard fuels thechaos by opening a locked door to let one side attack the other. Another guardkicks through two doors in pursuit of an inmate, who repels him with a fireextinguisher.

Substitute the word students for inmates and you've got reality, asdepicted in a report on Incident 11473 at the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School forjuveniles, in Baltimore County. The fight was Aug. 3, and one youth suffered abroken jaw, one had a skull fracture, and one incurred serious eye and facialinjuries. Two staff members were fired.

Two months later, the security chief who reported the incident was firedafter wrecking a van loaded with Hickey residents on their way to court, someof whom were sitting on milk crates.

Violence and foul-ups are nothing new at Hickey. Housing about 260 youths,the state's largest juvenile detention center has long been a symbol of whatails Maryland's juvenile justice system.

This week, Hickey reaches a crossroads. Tomorrow is the last day it will berun by Youth Services International, a subsidiary of Correctional ServicesCorp. which has managed the place for nearly 11 years. State officials willkeep operations going while choosing a new contractor to take over in July.

The hope is that a newcomer will solve Hickey's problems, though this maybe the last chance for the private sector to get it right. Proposedlegislation would require the state to take over Hickey for good in July 2007,when the population would be cut to about one-fifth of its current size.

But state and corporate officials have claimed before to have discoveredthe formula to fix Hickey, only to founder time and again.

House of Refuge

As juvenile facilities go, the sprawling campus of Hickey is something of ahybrid - a detention center for youths awaiting trial, a holding area forthose awaiting 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 includes some of the toughest young offenders in the system,charged or convicted of crimes that include assault and armed robbery.

It began in Baltimore in 1850 as the groundbreaking House of Refuge, anearly attempt to keep juveniles out of adult jails, and moved to its presentsite near Glen Arm in 1910.

Its surroundings are bucolic - rolling, wooded hills and horse pastures -but its high chain-link fences crowned by razor wire and the bleak, lock-updormitory rooms give the place its penitentiary feel.

The state decided to try privatization at Hickey in 1991 for the samereasons that it may end up ditching the concept: The place was gettinghorrible reviews, and many juveniles were coming out more hardened than whenthey entered.

Rebound, a for-profit firm from Brush, Colo., won the first contract withpromises of great achievements, only to be fired less than two years laterafter a rash of escapes.

Youth Services International (YSI), a local company at the time, was thentouted as the solution in 1993. Founder W. James Hindman was better known asthe man who created Jiffy Lube.

"We plan to turn these kids into tax-paying winners," Hindman boasted tolegislators in his initial pitch for the job. "The kids are going to love it,you are going love it, and the state of Maryland will be proud of theinitiatives you have taken to set this program on a high and lofty road."

The company's tenure instead became another cautionary tale. A year intothe deal, critics were grumbling about unfulfilled promises, and within a fewyears more Hindman's company was in financial difficulty.

'A significant change'

Correctional Services Corp. seemed to be the perfect rescuer, buying thestruggling YSI in early 1999, just as the company was winning a new five-yearcontract at Hickey, the same one that expires this week.

It didn't take long for problems to surface. Workers complained of shortstaffing. A $7-an-hour dishwasher was serving as a guard when one of thejuveniles he was supervising was involved in a sexual assault. There wereescapes and beatings. Meanwhile, Correctional Services was being sued in otherstates for violent incidents at its facilities.

"All of us would agree that there was a significant change when YSI wastaken over by CSC," said Maryland Juvenile Services Secretary Kenneth C.Montague Jr., who used to track Hickey's woes as a reform-minded statedelegate. His department is now seeking a refund of about $1.5 million forpoor performance.

By last May, a state report found that instances of child abuse or neglectwere taking place about once a week. In addition, 2.5 assaults were occurringdaily, not counting the possibility of "many other cases that go unreported bystaff and youth for fear of retaliation."

The report heightened state attention but didn't end the problems.

The riot last August erupted from a simmering dispute between youths inrival residence halls, according to an internal incident report obtained byThe Sun.

On Feb. 6, according to state police, a staff member was charged withassault after allegedly striking a youth who had dropped his food tray.

And on Feb. 23, also according to police, staff member William Devon Johnswas charged with assault after allegedly punching the face of a student whohad been involved in a fight.

Witnesses said Johns struck the student after the disturbance had begun toease. A state employee later overheard Johns in the parking lot yelling, "Iwill kick their ass. I will blow their brains out, and they don't know whothey are messing with."

Catherine C. Douglas, whose 16-year-old grandson left Hickey on March 18after a six-week stay, said: "He never felt safe for one minute. He wasterrified. He sat with his back to the wall in the day room. The place wasrundown, the staff was short, and there were fights all the time."

In recent weeks, YSI's problems at Hickey have included at least onebounced paycheck and the recent cancellation of cell phone service for staffmembers who depend on the phones in case of emergencies.

"Those kinds of glitches happen from time to time in any operation," JesseWilliams, executive vice president for YSI, said in a telephone interview fromFlorida. "But for the most part, the transition has been going pretty well."He said that some of the terminated cell phone accounts were being restored.

'Corporate mentality'

Critics say the Hickey experience shows that the profit motive isincompatible with the business of treating and counseling troubled youths.

"Kids can be rehabilitated, but it's expensive," says Judith Greene, acriminal justice policy analyst who researches private prisons. "Companies aregoing to cut corners in order to make a profit. It doesn't take long for thecorporate mentality to push aside the concern for kids."

Consider, for example, the perspective from which YSI's parent company,Correctional Services, views the problem of violence in its facilities. Itsmost recent 10-K report to the federal Securities and Exchange Commissionstates: "An escape, riot or other disturbance at one of our facilities couldhave a material adverse effect on our financial condition, results ofoperations and liquidity."

For the next three years, at least, the state will keep trying to runHickey largely as it has for the previous 13 - by hiring a private contractorto treat and detain hundreds of juveniles. Nationally, states such as Missourihave enjoyed recent success by doing away with such large centers and runningthe smaller facilities themselves. Colorado, by contrast, is building ajuvenile detention center with 500 beds.

Montague, who prefers the Missouri model but doesn't have the budget toemulate it, sounds almost resigned to a certain level of impersonal service ata place as large as Hickey. He nonetheless says that some companies, if heldto high enough standards, might be up to the job of running the place.

"If you have a program of any magnitude, and you have an adequate staffinglevel, there are for-profit companies that seem to be able to meet contractrequirements," he said.

Few bidders

And the next contractor will have to live up to tougher standards. Thestate has told potential bidders that staffing will have to increase by about9 percent. But the tougher requirements, plus Hickey's aging buildings, haveapparently scared away some of the competition.

"The physical plant was in really rough shape and would mean more work thanwe could really put into it," said Ellen Donnarumma of Community SolutionsInc., which decided not to bid.

Of about seven large contractors that initially showed interest, officialsat two say their companies submitted bids. One is Securicor New Century, aU.S. subsidiary of a large British corporation that runs some juvenilefacilities in Florida, and North American Family Institute (NAFI), a nonprofitcompany that runs the Thomas O'Farrell Youth Center in Marriottsville, whichhouses about 40 juveniles. NAFI is proposing to run Hickey in conjunction withsmaller vendors.

Ken Kopczyynski, a critic of for-profit correctional ventures who runs aWeb site documenting their troubles, laughed when asked about Securicor,contending that none of the companies in the field stands out as exemplary,due to the nature of the business.

"It's hard enough doing this kind of thing right under any circumstances,"he said. "Then you put the profit motive into it, and, oh ... Lord havemercy."

Correction: Because of inaccurate information from state officials, an article in Tuesday's editions of The Sun incorrectly reported that the chief of security at the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School was fired last fall after wrecking a van carrying students. In fact, he was placed on administrative leave with pay by the company running Hickey, Youth Services International, and did not lose his job until YSI's contract expired this week.

The Sun regrets the error.

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