While the TV showed cartoons aimed at young children and the smell of fresh paint wafted through the air, state lawmakers took what they thought was a surprise tour of the Broward Regional Juvenile Detention Center on Friday.
But they came away suspecting the “surprise” visit wasn’t such a surprise.
The fresh-paint smell was a giveaway, they said.
State Rep. Bobby DuBose said the detained kids recounted being told to spruce up the place and had been enlisted in applying the paint job.
It was the second tour of a juvenile lockup in South Florida since the Herald published an investigative series, Fight Club, that focused on troubled conditions in the juvenile justice system. Reporters were not allowed to accompany the group. The description of what the delegation saw was recounted afterward on the outside.
Gordon Weekes, who is in charge of the juvenile division of the Broward Public Defender’s Office, was put off by the apparent last-minute housekeeping, since the point of the tour was to see lockup conditions as they really are.
“Why not be transparent. What are you trying to hide?” Weekes asked. He said the group still noticed plumbing issues, mildew, rust and ant infestations.
“I’m more concerned after my visit,” said DuBose, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat.
In addition to state lawmakers and Weekes, the visiting contingent included Masha Ellison, president of the Broward branch of the NAACP. The group went from the cafeteria to the clinic to the living areas — with staff shadowing the visitors’ movements and warning the youths to sit nicely and be on their best behavior.
Fresh paint smell or no, DJJ indicated that if the lockup did receive advance notice of the visit, it was an hour’s warning at most.
DJJ Secretary Christina K. Daly, in a statement afterward issued from Tallahassee, said she will be happy to hear feedback from the visitors.
“We look forward to continuing to work with our legislative partners, and I will be reaching out directly to those that visited today to discuss their visit. I look forward to working with them to find ways to continue our ongoing reform efforts. If for any reason this facility was not meeting our high standards, we will take appropriate disciplinary action,” she said.
The Friday visit followed the Herald’s investigation into a host of juvenile justice system issues, including the use of unnecessary and excessive force, sexual misconduct and the alleged outsourcing of discipline to detainees designated as enforcers.
None of the roughly 35 youths who talked to the visitors related stories of staff ordering or encouraging fights. The series said staff encouraging fights is a phenomenon known as “honey-bunning,” named for the pastry that is often offered as a reward.
However, two girls did show DuBose ant bites up and down their legs, he said. They said staff told them to use bleach and a rag for treatment.
If true, that’s unacceptable, a DJJ official indicated.
Representatives said they were barred from bringing in their phones to take photos of conditions. During a tour taken last month by representatives in Miami-Dade, staff allowed legislators to keep their phones and record images.
Despite efforts to patch up the aging building, lawmakers said it needs to be replaced.
“There are efforts to cover up some things, but it only goes so far. You know, paint can only do so much,” said State Sen. Perry Thurston Jr., a Fort Lauderdale Democrat.
He and others plan to lobby for funding to build a new lockup, where teens can sleep in dormitories instead of on concrete slabs.
“They are trying to address this, but this is an ongoing issue,” Weekes said. “It’s about time that we do better for our children. Shut this place down and start anew.”