State Rep. David Richardson crossed his arms, eyebrows knit together and lips pressed in a straight line, as he walked under a sign reading, “Miami Dade Regional Juvenil Dete tion Center.”
Some of the blue letters disappeared with Hurricane Irma, staff said, but state Rep. Robert Asencio, a Miami Democrat, called the condition of the juvenile detention center a testament to the state’s lack of commitment.
He and four colleagues spent 90 minutes touring the lockup Wednesday afternoon, following publication of the Miami Herald’s Fight Club series, an investigation prompted by the plight of 17-year-old Elord Revolte, who was beaten to death at the facility in 2015.
In its reporting, the Herald revealed a host of juvenile justice system abuses, including the use of unnecessary and excessive force, sexual misconduct and the outsourcing of discipline by staff — who sometimes offer teens snack foods as a reward for doling out beatings.
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After publication of the investigation, the Legislature’s Miami-Dade delegation formed an investigative panel, co-chaired by Richardson, a Miami Beach Democrat, and Rep. Cynthia Stafford, D-Opa-locka, to look into the Herald’s findings and recommend changes to state policies.
Before they could wade into that, the lawmakers needed to see conditions for themselves, Richardson said. What they found disturbed them.
Mold. Mildew. Seeping toilet water. Broken showers. Confinement areas without running water.
“The living conditions are horrible, horrific, deplorable,” said State Rep. Kionne McGhee, a Cutler Bay Democrat. “Unacceptable. Unacceptable. And we want answers.”
McGhee said that years ago, he used to come and just talk to the detainees on Wednesdays. But the facility wasn’t in the condition then that it is now.
In Building 6, one of the residential areas, only three of the 10 showers worked, Richardson said. Water from the wall behind the two toilets spilled out onto the floor, slowly making its way to the assembly area’s carpet as the youths came and went, compounding the mold and mildew issue. About 20 kids are currently housed in Building 6 with about 92 in the entire lockup.
In Building 13, the confinement area, there were no sinks from which detainees could get water. Some toilets weren’t flushing.
In conversations with the lawmakers, youths spoke of a lack of clean sheets, of roaches and of a poor quality and quantity of food, Richardson said.
None said fighting was occurring, but Richardson said he and the rest of the panel will be requesting records on how many people are visiting the clinics, how often they come, how long they wait, and incident reports from within the lockup.
They did not get a chance to visit the cafeteria or clinic but plan to in future visits.
He declined to comment on observations of staff until he and his panel have a chance to receive and review more information. He said he was shocked to learn that starting salaries in the lockup are a little over $25,000.
“As they say, ‘You get what you pay for,’ ” Richardson said.
They’ll also be advocating to change a Florida law that currently doesn’t authorize unannounced visits to Department of Juvenile Justice facilities by lawmakers. Such visits are allowed in state prisons. Richardson said he had gotten permission from DJJ Secretary Christina Daly to make Wednesday’s visit unannounced, though he chose to inform staff ahead of time.
Standing in front of the detention center after the tour, Stafford and McGhee echoed earlier comments on the amount of work to be done. If a child’s parents kept their homes in this condition, the child would be taken away, they said.