"We wanted open dormitories where they could walk around, turn on a TV, play board games, do homework not in dimly lit cells but areas provided for that purpose," France said.

Of the reported attacks, he said: "There are going to be opportunists, there are going to be predators. We have to be mindful of that, and move in very quickly and extract people from that type of behavior."

There is no air-conditioning in the building. One day after record-high temperatures, partially opened windows invited in a breeze and window fans were turned on. It was warm, but not unbearable, though deeper into the cells the effect of the fans was minimal. In extreme conditions, there are misting fans and staffers distribute cups of ice, said Kelvin Harris, the compliance director.

Warden Marion Tuthill pointed to a fourth-floor room where colorful murals adorn the walls. A folded-up pingpong table sits off to the side, and Maj. Kim Wilson said there are plans to turn the space into a recreational area with computers, a sofa and a television.

Most of the juveniles are held on the third floor, with the second and fourth floors designated for those in need of protective custody or segregated for other reasons. While their peers were in class, two boys played the card game Uno near a flat-screen television mounted to the wall. Officials said detainees could not be interviewed about conditions at the facility without the consent of their attorneys.

The protective custody tier had four beds lined up, three of which were dressed. Above one was a piece of notebook paper where a juvenile had scrawled "Trust in God." On bedside tables were rolls of toilet paper and a bar of soap.

At a hearing this month, defense attorney Edie Cimino told Heard that a juvenile who is being picked on faces a dilemma: "He can take the beatings at night and from 8 [a.m.] to 1 [p.m.] he can go to class, or he can go to protective custody and contemplate the inner workings of his mind for 23 hours a day. … It's torture."

Officials say the building has four corrections officers assigned to the three floors, but defense attorneys say they are often pulled away to perform other duties or to use phones on other floors. Tuthill maintained that the building is properly staffed, and that no officers are asked to do anything that would take them away from their assignment.

"That's somebody not doing their job, and not a staffing issue," said spokesman Rick Binetti.

Prosecutor Hankin warned in court that defense attorneys would try to take advantage of the complaints, making it difficult for judges to "separate fact from fiction." City prosecutors generally oppose transfer requests, arguing that many of the assaults described by youth in court are not reported or documented within the facility.

Statistics provided by the correctional system indicate that there have been only 11 assaults in the annex since January.

'Don't say nothing'

The shy 16-year-old was wearing a tan jumpsuit, fidgeting uncomfortably on the witness stand.

Jonathan was brought to the youth annex in late June after being charged in a robbery, and spent a week on the second-floor intake area for a medical evaluation. He then was brought up to the third floor and placed in a room with 15 other kids. Almost instantly, there was trouble, he said.

"I was watching TV, and they were just looking at me, the whole group," he testified in a Circuit Court transfer hearing. Defense attorneys requested that for safety reasons the youth not be identified by his last name while detained.

He got up and climbed into his bed, only to be stirred by another teen — who had been put up to it by others — repeatedly striking him. It caused a deep cut to the inside of his lip, which he attempted to treat himself. "Don't say nothing," the others told him, he said.

But he went to the correctional officers' station anyway, as the others looked on. "I was scared," he later explained. The officer, understanding the situation, told him to write down what had happened so the other boys wouldn't hear him.

Protective custody on the fourth floor was no better. There, he said, the boys told Jonathan, who is Hispanic, that he didn't belong in the country, insulted his mother, took his food, and dumped garbage on him as he slept.

"They were trying to force me to fight them," he explained. "I told them 'No, I'm just here to do my time. I'm not trying to get a ticket,' " referring to an infraction. He said he begged the corrections officers on duty to transfer him to a solitary cell.

Most don't report their assaults for fear of being branded a "snitch." In a recent hearing, one teen described getting "banked," slang for being jumped, and was asked by a skeptical prosecutor why he didn't tell anyone. " 'Cause they said they was going to get me," he said.