The Miami Herald

Minor offenses at camp brought beatings

 
The last graduating class of the Bay County SheriffÂ’s Office Boot Camp in Panama City marches before relatives and friends on March 7.
TERRY BARNER/THE NEWS HERALD, PANAMA CITY
The last graduating class of the Bay County SheriffÂ’s Office Boot Camp in Panama City marches before relatives and friends on March 7.
The teenage boys smiled, they shrugged and they smirked. They spoke without permission or they refused to speak at all.

That's all it took for the boys at the Bay County Sheriff's Office Boot Camp to provoke a swift and painful response from their guards. Even crying and "whimpering" brought harsh discipline.

The scenes were repeated over and over, 180 times over the past three years, at the juvenile boot camp in Panama City, according to Florida Department of Juvenile Justice records obtained by The Miami Herald under the state's public-records law.

In only eight of the 180 instances documented since January 2003 were the teenagers described as hitting guards, fighting with other youths, threatening to escape or trying to harm themselves.

The documents - use-of-force reports written by the guards themselves - show that the overwhelming majority of the youths were subjected to "takedowns, " hammer-fist blows and "knee strikes" for:

  • Being unwilling or unable to perform rigorous exercises.
  • Exercising without sufficient "motivation."
  • Being "insolent" with guards.
  • Speaking without permission.
  • "Breathing heavily."
  • "Tensing" themselves.

Boys were physically "restrained" for furrowing their brows, mumbling or gritting their teeth. On Christmas Day 2004, one boy was disciplined for smiling.

VIOLENT PUNISHMENT KNEES, FISTS, THUMBS USED FOR DISCIPLINE

Their punishments: knees jabbed forcefully into their thighs, hammer-fist punches to the arms, wrist twisting, and being wrestled to the ground. Another common tactic was the use of "pressure points, " in which guards used their thumbs to cause pain by pressing on sensitive areas behind the youths' ears or under their chins.

"I . . . observed offender become still and his breathing become shallow and I felt him tense his right arm. . . . I then applied a knee strike to his left thigh area, " a sergeant wrote after one episode on Feb. 23, 2005.

In many of the cases, the guards used the tactics despite written orders by Department of Juvenile Justice chief Anthony Schembri, who in June 2004 banned the use of physical force except in extreme situations.

TREATMENT CRITICIZED EXPERT FINDS 'PATTERN OF TORTURING CHILDREN'

Juvenile justice experts who reviewed the documents at The Miami Herald's request said the treatment of the youths was unjustifiable.

"What you have there is an administratively approved, systematic pattern of torturing children, " said Ron Davidson, director of mental health policy in the psychiatry department of the University of Illinois at Chicago, who studied the 180 reports. Davidson has reviewed nearly 400 group homes, mental hospitals and juvenile justice facilities for the U.S. Department of Justice, the Illinois Department of Children & Family Services and other agencies.

Waylon Graham, a Panama City attorney for the camp's second-highest-ranking officer, Lt. Charles Helms, defends the actions of the guards, saying they behaved exactly as DJJ and Sheriff's Office administrators expected of them, and never intended to harm the youths in their custody.

"They were tightly supervised, " Graham said. "Everything was videotaped there. There were no rogue drill sergeants out of control. To be blunt, some of those kids showed up at the boot camp mean as hell, after they'd been rejected by alternative programs. This was kind of the end of the line."

A computer analysis of the boot camp use-of-force reports - which were redacted by the state to exclude the youths' names for privacy reasons - shows that all but seven of the 180 incidents were declared "appropriate" by the camp's administrators. Three were found to have been inappropriate, and four were left unresolved.

Among the unresolved cases: the Jan. 6 death of Martin Lee Anderson, who was punched, kneed and choked by several guards when he said he couldn't breathe and couldn't run more laps. Martin's death remains under investigation by a special prosecutor in Tampa appointed by Gov. Jeb Bush.

The physical punishments meted out at the camp were well known to officials at the DJJ. All of the use-of-force reports were faxed to DJJ headquarters in Tallahassee for review, and there is no record of DJJ officials ever objecting to the boot camp's methods for dealing with uncooperative detainees.

"Whoever read those reports has to share the blame - and there is blame, " said retired Miami-Dade Juvenile Judge Tom Petersen, who also reviewed the use-of-force reports for The Miami Herald. "The fact that this went on, and went on for years, makes it so much worse."

A spokeswoman for Bay County Sheriff Frank McKeithen did not respond to repeated requests for comment. Since Martin's death, the Sheriff's Office has declined to discuss the camp, citing state and federal investigations into the teenager's death. The camp is closing down Thursday, although all of the youthful offenders have already been released or moved to other DJJ facilities.

The Bay County Sheriff's Office Boot Camp opened in 1994, as the state tried to cope with a series of violent, well-publicized crimes by teens. Some of the mayhem had been directed at tourists, the state's economic lifeblood.

The theoretical underpinning of the boot camp programs, all run by county sheriffs, was that troubled youths needed strong discipline and an outlet for limitless energy, as well as successful adult role models to emulate.

But at some point, academic experts say, many of the camps became all "tough" and no "love."

"You communicate to the kid, right away, that he is in a very intimidating place, and he can get the tar kicked out of him unless he does exactly what you want, " said Petersen, who also taught juvenile justice for 10 years at the University of Miami. "It's not the way to run a juvenile justice program, and we've known that for years."

EXERCISE IS A BIG ISSUE GUARDS OFTEN CITED YOUTHS' AVERSION TO IT

Exercise - or the inability or refusal of many detainees to perform it - was the cause for much of the physical force used at the camp. Guards cited lack of "motivation" during physical training in 58 of the use-of-force reports.

In a typical incident, on Jan. 22, 2004, an officer slammed his knee into a youth's thigh because the teen displayed a "threatening posture." The incident began when the boy showed "poor motivation during alternative training" and was ordered "to raise his motivation and to continue performing exercises as instructed."

On May 6, 2004, a guard hit a youth with his knee and pressed his thumb on pressure points on his head twice because the teen was "performing his alternative training with extremely poor motivation, " a report said. "Offender became passive aggressive by not completing his exercises."

On Feb. 15, 2005, a guard used the pressure-point tactic on a boy who insisted he couldn't continue to do "low crawl" exercises during orientation to the camp.

"Offender began speaking without permission in an insolent tone, 'Sir, I can't do this, sir, ' " the report states.

And on Sept. 22, 2005, a guard used pressure points and the "bent wrist" technique on a boy when he was found "performing . . . pushups with low motivation."

Whatever the provocation, the physical-force sessions often escalated. Typically, youths who misbehaved were placed in what guards called the "escort" position for "counseling." In practice, that meant a boy would have one or two guards holding him forcefully by the arms, often against a wall or pole, or prone on the ground.

ACTIONS AND REACTIONS RESPONSES TO FORCE BRING MORE RESTRAINTS

Experts who reviewed the records say the teens' reactions were to be expected: They became tense. They spoke disrespectfully. They mumbled. They clenched their teeth.

Invariably, that provoked more force.

On March 9, 2005, one boy slammed a door and then showed "low motivation [and] a poor attitude while stretching" before exercises. An officer ordered the boy to "open his eyes and answer . . . questions." The boy refused, and the guard thrust his thumb into the pressure point behind the boy's ear.

"Offender began crying, tensed up his arm and stated in an insolent tone, 'All y'all want to do is bring me down!' " the guard's report said. "At that time, I delivered a knee strike to offender's right thigh as a distractionary technique and escorted him to the ground."

On Sept. 9, 2005, a youth got into trouble for becoming "visibly angry" by furrowing his eyebrows and hanging his head. His "poor attitude" got him a knee strike.

"Offender became passive resistant by not answering my questions, " the guard wrote. "When asked a question offender would begin to make whimpering sounds. . . . I again applied the hollow behind the ear" pressure-point technique.

Five days later, on Sept. 14, guards used force on a boy who was "mumbling" during a drill and ceremony class.

"Offender then rolled his eyes and stood staring directly at me, " a guard wrote. "I applied a bent wrist to [his] right wrist for approximately 12 to 15 seconds."

Pressure points behind the ear were used on one boy for questioning whether the guards were allowed to rough him up. "Offender began to speak without permission and told me that I could not touch him without a reason, " a guard wrote on June 1, 2005. Petersen, the veteran juvenile judge, said the guards' actions amounted to needless violence.

"It's absolutely absurd that they would interpret 'breathing heavily' or 'tensing the left arm' as some kind of threat that justifies physical force, " he said.

"All that violence. It's evil."

USE OF FORCE IS RISKY OFFICIAL CITES INJURIES TO 'TOO MANY' YOUTHS

Camp officials have maintained that the use-of-force techniques are fairly harmless.

But records from the DJJ and the boot camp suggest that such manhandling of children carries risks.

On June 21, 2004, DJJ chief Schembri banned four physical restraints that had been in wide use at DJJ youth programs, including all "pressure points" and the "wristlock, " a technique similar to the "bent wrist" often used at the Bay County boot camp.

"Too many youth have been injured in incidents with these techniques, " Schembri wrote in the memo. "While these holds may be appropriate for an adult population, experience has shown us that it is too easy to injure a young person when applying these holds.

"Physical restraint should be applied only to prevent a youth from hurting himself or others, and to prevent property damage or escape."

NEED FOR REVIEW CITED 'WE CAN DO BETTER, ' FLORIDA AGENCY SAYS

It is unclear why the banned techniques were used on nonviolent youths at the Bay County boot camp, which operated under contract with the DJJ. Cynthia Lorenzo, a spokeswoman for the DJJ, declined to discuss why the agency failed to react to the barrage of force reports from Panama City that showed that the camp was ignoring state policy.

"Recent events have brought to light the need for a more thorough review of the procedures involving use of force at juvenile facilities, " Lorenzo said in a brief statement. "The agency is committed to the safety and well being of youths in our care. We need to do better, we can do better, and we will do more."

Dr. Janet Konefal, director of complementary medicine at the University of Miami and a longtime practitioner of acupuncture and pressure-point techniques in healing, said that applying extreme pressure to certain parts of the body can cause great pain - which is why pressure points also are used in martial arts.

"Most people will just comply because it hurts, " Konefal said. "You can bring somebody to their knees. You can make somebody faint."

BEHAVIOR QUESTIONED FORCEFUL TACTICS LIKENED TO CHILD ABUSE

Chelly Schembera, a retired Florida social service administrator with extensive child welfare, juvenile justice and inspector general experience during her 27-year tenure with the Department of Children & Families, said the use of such tactics as using pressure points, knee strikes and wrist holds would send parents or other caregivers straight to jail.

"This would be categorized as child abuse, " said Schembera, who reviewed all the camp's use-of-force re- ports for The Miami Herald.

One teenager told the Bay County boot camp's second in command why he struck out at three officers who used force against him when, according to the camp's report, he "began to perform exercises poorly." The youth was charged with battery, although the charges were later dropped.

"I was getting tired and I wasn't doing [push-ups] as quickly as I could, " the boy said in a taped statement on Nov, 5, 2004. "Sir, I was yelling, sir, like in pain, sir. . . . I rolled over and I struck the officer trying to get him off me . . . cause they put [pressure] underneath my throat, sir, and I couldn't breathe."

"I was crying, I had tears, sir, I just wanted to get this over so I was trying to get my mind to think about something else, " the boy said.

A report on the Oct. 30, 2004, incident said the boy had a "dime-size" bruise behind his right ear that had scabbed up from one of the pressure points applied to his head.

Another boy described how pressure was applied to his throat on Feb. 8, 2005. Officers used force on the boy shortly after he entered the boot camp.

"They asked me if they were going to have any problems with me, and I stopped to think about it and the next thing I know . . . the staff is in my face yelling at me, " the boy is quoted as saying in a Sheriff's Office report, written for the DJJ inspector general. "One of the [guards] placed his hand on my adam's apple and tilted my head back applying pressure, " the youth said in a taped statement. "He applied pressure to my adam's apple to the point where it felt like I was being choked."

One boy was given a "rug burn" above his eye during a "takedown" on Feb. 8, 2005, after an encounter that the guards described as "search and instructions."

The report does not say how a takedown led to a rug burn on the face.

Another teen got his lip cut during a lengthy use of force the next day. The boy provoked guards by "talking to himself while sitting in his doorway, " a report said. As guards maneuvered to do a takedown, the boy "tensed his left arm after being repeatedly ordered not to tense his arm."

For that, the youth was slammed with a knee and pressed with a thumb behind the ear.

"I then noticed that offender had blood on his bottom lip, " the report said, giving no explanation for how the youth got cut.

GUARDS HAD LEEWAY THEIR TACTICS LABELED 'CORPORAL PUNISHMENT'

Schembera, the retired DCF official, said the guards should never have been allowed to use force in the incidents they reported. "I don't have any doubt in the world that this is corporal punishment, " she said. "And I don't have any doubt in the world that it would not be allowed by any state agency or government contractor - especially without any real justification.

"It is against the law to use corporal punishment on children in state care in the state of Florida."




© 2006 Miami Herald Media Company. All Rights Reserved.
http://www.miamiherald.com