The state's juvenile justice monitor has warned legislators that Baltimore's youth lockup "is going through a severe and dangerous crisis," describing in a letter how employee failures led to a barricade situation last week and how "erroneous" reports filed by employees concealed a similar disturbance in late July.
Recent events at the 144-bed Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center "threaten the lives and safety of both youth and staff," Marlana Valdez, who works for the Maryland attorney general, wrote in an Oct. 10 letter to top legislators and others.
"Again this goes back to what has always been the issue there, overcrowding of juveniles and understaffing by DJS," said State Public Defender Nancy Forster.
Department of Juvenile Services officials routinely call the Baltimore center their toughest facility. In recent months, officials have worked to reduce its population from at- or over-capacity to closer to 100. Yesterday, 115 teenage boys were confined there, most awaiting trial upstairs in Juvenile Court.
The eight-hour barricade overnight Oct. 7 involved 10 youths who locked themselves inside a case manager's office and then moved into a residential unit and destroyed furniture.
A review of video surveillance showed that the barricade was an outgrowth of employees allowing youths to use the telephone in the case manager's office to make "private, unmonitored phone calls," Valdez wrote.
John Dixon, a deputy secretary of juvenile services who reviewed the video, said the center's supervision of phone calls was insufficient.
"There was some coming and going out of the office that should have been more tightly restricted," he said.
Dixon said the department is still investigating the barricade situation and how it began. It ended peacefully about 5 a.m. Oct. 8 when employees, including Secretary Donald W. DeVore, persuaded the youths to cooperate and clean up.
Valdez wrote that, "Our deep concern about this dangerous incident is intensified by our knowledge that this is not the only recent incident of this nature."
She said she recently became aware of a July disturbance uncovered by a federal monitor. The U.S. Department of Justice periodically reviews records and video and visits the facility to ensure that it is making progress in such areas as violence prevention.
The July 29 video showed that youths "raged out of control" for 3 1/2 hours, Valdez wrote. They created a furniture barricade, threw furniture, smoked cigarettes and set a piece of paper on fire.
Facility employees, however, reported what happened as a "28-minute group disturbance that was quickly controlled by staff," Valdez wrote.
After the federal monitor's review, the department began a new investigation, which "concluded that 'the incident report ... does not factually represent the numerous occurrences that happened.'"
Dixon said he has not reviewed that video but said, "I'm not denying anything happened there."
"This is why we're under DOJ monitoring to begin with," he said, referring to the initial, apparently erroneous reports.
"I really believe most are not intentional, it's just staff not reporting correctly. We're working on training in that area."