Mother: Violence at Florida lockup cost son his life

Family photo showing Maurice Harris, Northwestern H.S. student shot to death over Labor Day weekend 2015.
Family photo showing Maurice Harris, Northwestern H.S. student shot to death over Labor Day weekend 2015. Miami

At Miami’s long-troubled youth lockup, then-16-year-old Maurice Harris found a new calling: beating other teens.

Maurice did not want to be a gladiator, his family says. But they say officers who oversaw his rehabilitation offered him honey buns and Snickers bars and McDonald’s hamburgers in exchange for meting out the punishment they couldn’t. It was a dangerous job.

On Labor Day a year later, Harris was back home in Liberty City when he ran into one of the teens he had beaten, his mother said. Don’t I know you from the jail? the other youth asked. And moments later, police say, 19-year-old Everton Ramsay got his revenge.

Maurice Harris was buried on his 18th birthday, having been shot eight times, said his mother, Shakira Stewart. Ramsay is in the Miami-Dade Jail, having been charged with second-degree murder and carrying a concealed firearm.

Harris’ killing is under investigation by the Miami Police Department. But it also is part of a widening probe into whether detention officers in Miami-Dade have rewarded detained youth with honey buns, fast food or other treats as bounties for acting as enforcers.

Reacting to a story in the Miami Herald about guards encouraging detained youth to fight one another — and rewarding them with treats — Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle has asked the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to investigate the Miami-Dade Regional Juvenile Detention Center at 3300 NW 27th Ave. The State Attorney’s Office also is looking into whether detained youth are rewarded for fighting, and it is prosecuting Maurice’s alleged killer, as well, said Chief Assistant State Attorney Esther Jacobo.

At the request of the Department of Juvenile Justice, FDLE has launched a separate probe into the operation of a privately run DJJ facility in Palm Beach County, the Palm Beach Juvenile Correctional Facility. Four members of the U.S. Congress asked DJJ Secretary Christina Daly last August to suspend all operations at the program, citing “a troubling trend of violent altercations.”

The violence at Miami’s lockup “cost Maurice his life,” said his mother, who works in security. “That’s my only son, and I lost his father two years ago.”

“He would be alive if this did not occur in the DJJ system,” said Stewart, 36.

The claim that detained youth were being offered bounties to beat other detainees first was made last month, in the wake of another killing. On Aug. 31, 17-year-old Elord Revolte died at Holtz Children’s Hospital, a day after being jumped by as many as 19 other youths in his Miami lockup module. Authorities have not said what caused the melee.

When the Herald spoke with a foster mother who cared for the teen briefly, she said other foster kids with a Department of Juvenile Justice history often spoke of guards offering honey buns as rewards for beating other kids who were troublesome. Lawyers for detained youth in both Miami-Dade and Broward counties said that clients also have described being offered bounties to beat up other detainees.

Heather DiGiacomo, a spokeswoman for the juvenile justice department, said her agency initiated an Inspector General investigation immediately upon learning of the allegations. “These allegations are appalling,” DiGiacomo said. “We had an investigative team in Miami-Dade the next day.

“We take the safety of these kids as our number one priority,” DiGiacomo added. “We do have an open IG investigation into these allegations. If there is any finding of wrongdoing by staff, they will be held fully accountable.”

Annie Streeter acknowledges that her grandson, Maurice, “did some bad things.”

He was sent to the lockup in May 2014, records show, on charges of battery, trespassing and car theft. And he had been there before, on charges of robbery, marijuana possession and battery.

Streeter said her grandson had trouble coping after the death of his father, also Maurice Harris, who was killed in a home invasion in February 2013. Police said at the time that Harris died protecting his 11-year-old daughter from the gunmen, who wore bandanas over their faces as they shot the elder Harris again and again. Stewart, Harris’ wife of six years, watched the horror unfold. A police spokeswoman called the killers “beasts.”

Maurice, his grandmother said, “needed psychiatric help after he lost his father, because his father was murdered.”

A year after his father’s death, Maurice was booked into the Miami lockup, around May 2014. With his six-foot, three-inch frame and rangy body, he likely looked the part of a fighter. But Maurice’s mother said it was the lockup guards who suggested he beat up other detainees — and Maurice was rewarded for his efforts with contraband food.

The guards, Stewart said, “weren’t allowed to discipline the kids themselves, so they would give him whatever he wanted to fight the other kids. It kept order in the system.”

When Maurice was released by DJJ this May, his mother said, he told her he felt bad about the “numerous” fights. He told her the guards would give him honey buns — readily available to officers, though not detainees, in lockup vending machines — as well as Snickers bars, ice cream and McDonald’s burgers when he completed a job. “The kids don’t get that kind of stuff in there,” Stewart said.

Despite his troubles, family members described Maurice as a loving son and sibling. He had originally wanted to study engineering, Streeter said, but when he grew into his long body, her grandson hoped to become a professional athlete. After the Labor Day weekend in which he was killed, Maurice had planned to begin practicing with the Northwestern High School basketball team, she said. He had just gotten his driver’s license, and had hoped to get a job so he could buy a car.

“Maurice came from a loving family,” his grandmother said. “He was excited about trying to get things back on track when this happened to him.”

On Labor Day, Maurice ran into one of the kids he fought. Police say Ramsay asked the 17-year-old if they’d been in jail together, and then followed Maurice as he walked eastbound on Northwest 54th Street. At 13th Avenue, Ramsay shot him, a police report said. Maurice was pronounced dead at Jackson Memorial’s Ryder Trauma Center.

Police seized what they think is the murder weapon — a black-handled .38 Special six-shot revolver — from the white, four-door Nissan Altima Ramsay was driving.

Streeter, Maurice’s grandmother, said family members had hoped that the teen’s year in DJJ custody would “straighten him out.” Now, they are wondering if the juvenile justice system actually made the teen’s troubles far worse.

“Nobody should suffer like this,” she said.

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