Latest News

Commentary: Problems, abuse continue to plague for-profit juvenile lockups

Yet again, a judge has been tasked to sort through wrenching allegations of abuse and neglect and violence at a privatized juvenile lock-up.

The Broward Public Defender’s Office filed a string of habeas corpus petitions in Broward circuit court last week, demanding the release of 58 kids locked up at the Thompson Youth Academy in Pembroke Pines.

The Pembroke Pines operation is officially designated as a “therapeutic” low-security program for juvenile offenders. The therapy, according to the writs filed by Assistant Chief Public Defender Gordon Weekes, includes staffers using violent “take-down” tactics, orchestrating inmate-on-inmate fights and doing little to protect vulnerable kids from violent attacks from other inmates.

The petitions were a novel legal maneuver, but the allegations echo charges in a 2010 federal lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which claimed Thompson staffers “choked and slammed children head-first into concrete walls,” that the young inmates were chronically undernourished and that they were denied access to their attorneys. One kid claimed he had been sexually abused. (The 2010 lawsuit was settled and the records sealed.)

It all sounds so familiar in the era of privatization. In a 1998 scandal at the Pahokee Youth Development Center, kids were subjected to a violent and abusive staff. Rehab and education programs were a joke. Classes were canceled, at one stretch, for 13 straight days. And a state monitor charged that the private penal outfit running the joint, Correctional Services Corp., was keeping kids locked up beyond their release date so the company could bill the state for the extra money.

Correctional Services Corp. lost that contract in 1999. But CSC had just acquired another for-profit juvenile justice company, Maryland-based Youth Services International. Guess who has the state contract run Thompson Youth Academy?

YSI has contracts amounting to $81.8 million to run Thompson and six other residential lock-ups in Florida. Apparently $80,000-plus in political contributions since 2005 makes up for a few pummeled children along the way.

In 2004, a Palm Beach County grand jury investigated a spate of violence and abuse by staffers at the Florida Institute for Girls, run by another for-profit penal outfit, Premier Behavioral Solutions. The grand jury found that the company had cut back so much on staff that it led to a “domino effect” — an “increased number of lockdowns, cancellations of physical and outdoor activities, cancellation of educational classes, cancellation of various therapy sessions, cancellations of volunteer programs, cancellations of special activities.”

The cutbacks led to “pent-up levels of energy and frustration in the girls, increased violence and defiance by the girls, resulting in more take-downs, potential physical and sexual abuse of the girls by the staff.”

But that’s the business model. That’s where for-profit penal operations find their profit.

The New York Times just published an investigation into privatized half-way houses in New Jersey, with similarly over-worked, underpaid workforces, a startling record of abuse and violence, and 5,100 escapes since 2005.

But for-profit penal companies in New Jersey, just like in Florida, have lots of fantastic political influence.