At a since-shuttered juvenile corrections center in Pahokee, staff members used Snickers bars to get kids to beat each other up. In Broward County’s juvenile lockup, free iced tea has purportedly been similarly employed.
Department of Juvenile Justice administrators won’t say if they think that’s what happened to Elord Revolte, the 17-year-old who died last month after a vicious attack by more than a dozen detainees at the Miami-Dade juvenile lockup.
But they did say this late Wednesday evening: Five staffers at the lockup, including three supervisors, have been fired for infractions that include failing to oversee detained children and falsifying official reports. And a special team will be dispatched from the agency’s Inspector General’s Office on Thursday to initiate an investigation into allegations that “honey buns” have been used as bounties for beat-downs.
Elord was booked into the Miami lockup on Aug. 27 on charges of armed robbery. He left on a stretcher four days later after being jumped by as many as 20 other detainees, authorities said. It is not yet clear what led to the melee in which the teen was injured. But in the wake of Elord’s death, lawyers for delinquent children, as well as Elord’s former foster mother, have told the Miami Herald that it has been common practice for officers to use treats as an inducement for detainees to punish other kids.
In Elord’s case, kids in his module “complained about him to the guards,” Chief Assistant Miami-Dade Public Defender Marie Osborne said. “One guard’s response was, ‘You gotta do what you gotta do.’ The kids understood they had a green light.”
Both the Miami-Dade Police and the state Department of Juvenile Justice are investigating Elord’s death. Heather M. DiGiacomo, a DJJ spokeswoman, would not provide any details of what the agency’s “preliminary” investigation has found.
Elord, who was not sent to the hospital until a day after his beating, was the second youth to die in a state lockup after waiting a prolonged period for medical care. In February, 14-year-old Andre Sheffield died at DJJ’s Brevard County lockup of bacterial meningitis, an inflammation of the protective membranes of the brain. Andre had complained of a headache and stomach pain, soiled himself, limped and fell over in the hours before he died, and six DJJ staff members were disciplined for their role in his death.
The Herald first learned of the alleged connection between honey buns and beatings the day after Elord died, when his short-term foster mother described the practice in detail to a reporter, who then asked the public defenders in Miami-Dade and Broward counties if they were aware of it.
The next day, an assistant public defender told Osborne, his boss, that detainees at the Miami lockup — most of whom are represented by their office — had disclosed being offered honey buns by guards looking for someone to hurt another detainee.
“When I asked [the lawyer], ‘Why honey buns?’ he stated these kids are incarcerated, so they don’t get anything like that in here. In here, a honey bun is like a million dollars,” Osborne told the Herald.
The kids who accept the bounties, Osborne said, serve an important purpose: “Guards can get around Abuse Hotline charges in an unorthodox way and maintain order and control in a situation where they are seriously outnumbered.”
Osborne was so concerned by the lawyer’s report that she called a staff meeting. She asked all the assistant public defenders who represent kids in the lockup to ask their clients what, if anything, they knew about the allegation. Within two weeks, she said, she had received reports from her staff involving 15 youths who separately confirmed the use of contraband food as rewards for beat-downs.
“I will put a honey bun on your head if you don’t do what I say,” one detainee quoted a guard to his lawyer.
“Sometimes it’s Skittles,” Osborne said. “It’s not always honey buns. Sometimes it’s Snickers. If they really want a child hurt, and they really want to ensure a kid will do it, the big treat is any kind of fast food, like a cheeseburger.”
The allegations were relayed by a reporter to DiGiacomo, who hours later said agency administrators “had had exactly no idea about [them]. They are appalling. When these things are reported to this agency, we take them seriously and investigate them.”
“When a tragedy like this happens, it rocks the entire agency,” DiGiacomo said of Elord’s death. “It is always heartbreaking when there is a death of a child. Their safety is our top priority.”
Osborne is not the only lawyer who has heard about the purported treats for beat-downs.
“I’ve heard that at almost every program I’ve visited where I’ve talked with children,” said Gordon H. Weekes Jr., Broward’s chief assistant public defender, who has headed the office’s Juvenile Court staff for a decade. “It seems like the staff uses children to enforce their vendettas rather than putting their own hands on a kid. They’ll say, ‘Take care of that kid for [iced] tea or a honey bun.’ I’ve heard that a number of times. I’ve reported it to DJJ a number of times.”
Clients of the Broward Public Defender’s Office have told their lawyers that officers will order a pizza or Chinese food and offer leftovers to kids “who are willing to do their bidding.”
Part of the problem, Weekes said, is that the teenagers in DJJ custody seldom are given enough food to gain the caloric intake their bodies require. “These are teens, and all they want to do is eat and eat and eat and eat, because they’re growing,” Weekes said, adding that he had encouraged state juvenile justice authorities to allow detainees to get “seconds” in the chow line.
Honey bun bounties apparently are well known even outside the state’s lockups.
Jolie Bogorad, who cared briefly for Elord and has had several other delinquent teens stay as foster children in her Miami Beach home, told the Herald that “it is a common occurence” for Miami-Dade detention officers to offer youths a honey bun to do their dirty work. “They give them a honey bun to beat the hell out of another kid,” Bogorad said. “Not one boy told me this. Everybody who came here from detention told me that.”
Complaints about food bounties go back nearly two decades at DJJ. During a hearing involving conditions at the now-shuttered Pahokee Youth Development Center in November 1997, one detainee testified about the use of Snickers bars as bribes for beatings. At that hearing, Osborne, who has supervised the juvenile attorneys in Miami for 20 years, questioned some of the kids who lived there.
Detainees testified that they had been taunted by guards, had been confined in isolation for hours on end, were forced to eat food with bugs in it, were hogtied, given advice on how to commit suicide and encouraged to fight with other kids — for the amusement and “excitement” of staff members, a hearing transcript says.
The use of rewards for kids who fought with each other sticks with Osborne to this day. “I’ve never forgotten that moment,” she said. When she asked one youth why kids would so readily beat up other kids, his answer haunted her.
“You don’t know,” the youth replied. “You’d do a lot for a Snickers.”