Broward County public defenders are seeking to shut down a troubled youth prison — one child at a time.
The Public Defender’s Office has filed 58 habeas corpus petitions in Circuit Court, arguing that the conditions of confinement at the Thompson Youth Academy are so egregious as to violate the Constitution. Chief Assistant Public Defender Gordon Weekes is asking judges to order the youths’ release.
The 154-bed youth camp, the motions allege, is rife with abuse: staffers award “bounties” to youngsters who physically abuse other children; fist fights are commonplace; staffers smoke marijuana openly in front of detained youth; and youth are routinely subjected to unnecessary takedowns. Last January, a motion says, a boy broke his nose after being punched in the face by a staffer. In March, another teen broke his foot following a restraint, the petitions say.
“The ongoing reports of abuse,” Weekes wrote, “lack of a corrective action plan to ensure the safety of committed youth, and the inaction of the department raise great concern as to the safety of youth presently at the Thompson Academy facility.”
Using the Constitution’s habeas corpus provisions — meaning, literally, “you have the body” in Latin, the habeas petitions seek to remedy unlawful arrests or confinement — is a novel approach to improving conditions at juvenile justice facilities, said semi-retired Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Tom Petersen, who presided in juvenile court and still hears cases on senior status.
“To my knowledge, this has never been done before,” said Petersen. “I can’t remember a public defender’s office ever filing a habeas corpus petition on behalf of a kid in an institution.”
The petitions, filed last week, are only the most recent salvo in a several-year skirmish between lawyers for the delinquent boys and the youth academy, which is owned and operated by a for-profit company with a history of troubles in several states.
Representatives for both Thompson Academy and its corporate owners did not return calls from The Miami Herald.
Samadhi Jones, a spokeswoman for the Department of Juvenile Justice, said she could not address the petitions, as they are pending legal actions.
“In reviewing the recent monitoring history for the current contract with Thompson Academy, which began Jan. 5, 2010, staff has been on-site 43 times, Jones said. “There have been no deficiencies identified up to the current date. There have been on average two site visits per month over the last 17 months.”
Jones added: “DJJ is committed to providing quality care to youth in our programs.”
Sarasota-based Youth Services International operates the youth prison on the campus of a state psychiatric hospital in Pembroke Pines under a $14.8 million, three-year contract with the Department of Juvenile Justice. The company runs eight other youth programs throughout Florida, including campuses in West Palm Beach, Ocala, St. Augustine and Greenville.
Thompson Academy has been the subject of numerous complaints from parents and children’s advocates. In October 2010, the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a lawsuit in federal court alleging camp employees “choked and slammed children head-first into concrete walls for infractions as minor as failing to stand up on command.” Detained children, the suit added, slept on dirty floors in hot rooms lacking air conditioning.
The lawsuit was settled in January of this year, in an agreement that remains under seal. But in his petitions in Broward Circuit Court, Weekes says the youth camp remains a threat to the health and safety of children who are ordered to live there.
In his suit, Weekes said lawyers for the detained youth have sought help from state juvenile justice administrators for several years, and have “exhausted all available administrative remedies to halt any further abuse” at the prison.
“The department must act immediately,” Weekes wrote. “The department must act decisively and in the best interest of Florida’s youth.”
Among the petitions’ claims:
• Food is in such short supply — and of such poor quality — at Thompson that it has become “a form of currency” used by detainees. Detainees place bets on camp activities using food, sometimes leading to fights and disturbances.
• Despite the ban on cash at such facilities, guards allow detainees access to money, and a “large sum of cash” was discovered in a dormitory last March.
• Violence is rampant. Nearly every youth has fought at one time or another at Thompson, with some youths being repeatedly victimized, with one boy having fought at least seven times. “Several youth do not feel safe within the program,” a petition says.
• Youths who “inflict physical abuse” on others are rewarded with “bounties,” including food rewards.
• Some guards not only smoke marijuana openly, but make the illegal drug available to detained youth, even youngsters who are ordered into the camp in order to be treated for narcotics abuse.