In My Opinion

Fred Grimm: Poor reports on operator of juvenile facilities don’t sway state officials

When it comes to bulldogging for-profit juvenile prisons, Howard Finkelstein’s your man.

The Broward Public Defender and chief assistant Gordon Weeks have been monitoring juvie lock-ups for years on behalf of their underaged clients, raising hell over rapes, abuse by staffers, unsanitary conditions, substandard food, the use of powerful drugs to subdue unruly kids.

You’d think that state officials, before doling out new contracts to a particularly controversial corporate prison operation, might check with Howard or Gordon.

“I’m baffled,” Finkelstein said Monday. He said the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice “hasn’t called us. Not once.”

On Sunday, the Palm Beach Post added to the bafflement over juvenile prison contracts with this opening paragraph: “Under fire and dogged by critics, the for-profit company running a local juvenile jail has reeled in a new multimillion-dollar contract to house teenage offenders —despite pending criminal charges of battery by two workers at a now-shuttered Broward County facility.”

The Post referred to Youth Services International, the latest incarnation of a controversial juvenile detention conglomerate with a troublesome history that ought to have given state officials pause. The Department of Juvenile Justice closed down Thompson Academy, YSI’s Pembroke Pines 154-bed operation, on Jan. 4, 2013, after the Broward Public Defenders office brought startling allegations of abuse, including charges that Thompson staffers staged fights among the teenage inmates, using food as reward for the winners. Charges of battery and allegations of sexual abuse by Thompson staffers are still pending.

In 2010, the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a lawsuit in federal court alleging Thompson 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. In 2006, the feds reported that the staff turnover at Thompson was 96 percent.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Justice reported that the rate of sexual abuse by staffers or other inmates reported by children incarcerated at the YSI-run Palm Beach Juvenile Correctional Facility in 2012 was triple the statewide average, the highest in the state. (A YSI-run facility in Georgia had the highest rate of any juvenile facility in the nation.)

Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Ronald Alvarez told the Post that giving out new contracts to YSI would be “a travesty.”

In October, the Huffington Post published a national investigation of YSI, reporting, “Those held at YSI facilities across the country have frequently faced beatings, neglect, sexual abuse and unsanitary food over the past two decades,”

The company, now based in Sarasota, began back in the early 1990s in New Jersey under the corporate name Esmore, housing detained illegal immigrations for the U.S. government.

In 1995 the New York Times reported on Esmor’s troublesome performance. “When immigration officials first awarded Esmor the New Jersey contract in 1993, there was already a foreshadowing of these problems in the company's two halfway houses across the Hudson River. But over the years, in awarding Esmor new contracts, government officials have largely overlooked a record of problems detailed in Federal inspection reports of its New York City halfway houses: low-paid, untrained employees; poor building conditions, from vermin and leaky plumbing to exposed electrical wires and other fire hazards, and inadequate, barely edible food.”

That apparently would prove to be a winning business plan of the company.

Yet, the Department of Juvenile Justice has happily renewed four existing contracts with YSI over the last two years, including a new $29 million deal to keep up the good work at Palm Beach Juvenile Correctional Facility.

In some other states, the Department of Juvenile Justice’s determination to maintain a business relationship with YSI might seem mysterious. But in Florida, as Howard Finkelstein explained, it’s all about the political juice.

The Huffington Post reported that YSI has contributed $418,000 to state political candidates or political action committees. The company has hired lobbyists closely associated with Gov. Rick Scott. That money and those hires trump complaints about excessive force or lousy food.

Finkelstein said that mistreatment and abuse are inevitable in private juvenile prisons. (Florida has now signed over all its 3,300 juvenile prison beds to private operators).

“Nobody should be surprised at what’s happening. The state, trying to get a financial bargain, turns over children to a corporation with a priority to make money.” he said. And without enough money or manpower to do it right.

Finkelstein said that at least back when the state ran juvie facilities, despite the occasional scandals, “Their heart was in the right place. They weren’t in it for the money. We had transparency. We had records in the sunshine.”

Now he says, if his office goes after some scurrilous state contractor, the company just changes its name. He says it’s as if the state Department of Juvenile hardly notices that these are the same people, causing the same problems.

Nowadays, he said, “The state is as bad at monitoring contracts as it was in delivering services.”

Read more Fred Grimm stories from the Miami Herald

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