Published January 30, 2006 1 2 3 4 5 6 Next »
The Florida Civil Commitment Center. Photo by Patrick Farrell/Miami Herald

Chaos, coverups, boredom and death: ‘This place is a powder keg ready to explode'

Florida Civil Commitment Center location

ARCADIA -- For seven years, Florida taxpayers have pumped more than $100 million into the Florida Civil Commitment Center, a facility set up to treat the mental disorders of the state's most dangerous sexual predators.

What taxpayers got: a place where child pornography arrived in the mail, stashed inside transistor radios. Bags of marijuana came in care packages, stuffed in the guts of peanut butter jars, and men brewed gallons of homemade alcohol under the noses of a shoestring staff.

The cornerstone of a program named after a slain 9-year-old boy, the center eroded into a place where boredom, violence and the fog of drugs and alcohol became as common as group therapy sessions -- with one man dying after a fight over a bag of Cheetos.

Overcrowded and short-staffed, with less than half of the men actually in treatment, the center lies at the heart of what is wrong with the Jimmy Ryce Act, an investigation by The Miami Herald found.

"It's a terribly, terribly run program," said Kelly Summers, a former investigator for the Florida Department of Children & Families, who uncovered a slew of problems at the center. "Because no one wants to appear soft on sex offenders, no one wants to address what's going on down there."


A review of hundreds of pages from internal documents, state investigations and audits, along with interviews with mental health experts, offenders, facility staff members, attorneys and advocates, sketch the story of a therapy center run amok.

Among the newspaper's findings:

• Employees struggle to manage a facility plagued with fights, substance abuse and suicide attempts. Guards have been caught covering up mistakes by erasing security tapes and altering reports, while others have been accused of selling drugs and having sex with offenders.

• While the state has sent more men to the center, staffing hasn't kept pace because the Legislature refuses to provide enough funds -- creating a dangerous disparity that reached an all-time high in the months before authorities were forced to conduct a raid last February to restore order.

• The number of clinicians also has failed to keep pace with the ballooning population. Since the facility opened six years ago, psychologists' caseloads have quadrupled, leaving hundreds of men pacing the yard, dwelling in doldrums and stirring up trouble.

• Nearly three dozen men who suffer from severe mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder receive little or no specialized treatment -- let alone therapy for their psychosexual disorders -- a direct violation of federal law, several civil rights attorneys say.

• Meanwhile, a treatment center originally slated to house 460 men now holds more than 520, creating more tension.

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Kenneth Dudding
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