After 15 years, grand jury finds same culture of deadly cruelty at Miami juvenile facilities

Miami Herald Editorial Board

Dark secrets of Florida’s juvenile justice system : A Miami Herald investigation

A look at the "fight club" culture inside Florida's juvenile justice system, where staffers sometimes employ harsh takedowns, ignore abuse and offer snacks as bribes for beatdowns — known as "honey-bunning."
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A look at the "fight club" culture inside Florida's juvenile justice system, where staffers sometimes employ harsh takedowns, ignore abuse and offer snacks as bribes for beatdowns — known as "honey-bunning."

Omar Paisley, 17, died in juvenile detention from a burst appendix. Elord Revolte, also 17, died in juvenile detention, too — from internal bleeding. What really killed them, however, was the entrenched neglect and cruelty of Florida’s juvenile justice system.

Wednesday, a Miami-Dade grand jury credited the Miami Herald for its stomach-churning series “Fight Club” for throwing a spotlight on the system. The gripping stories “detailed a pattern of conduct wherein guards within the juvenile detention facility created intolerable conditions and behavior by bribing certain juveniles with fast food, including pastry ‘honeybuns’, in order for those teens to discipline other juveniles within the facility,” grand jurors wrote.

Elord was only the worst casualty of this heinous practice, encouraged — indeed, demanded — by the adults in charge. He died after a gang of other young detainees in the Miami lockup punched and kicked him mercilessly. But the scars left by such brutality — both physical and psychological, and on both the beaters and the beaten — are unfathomable.

It’s as if we’ve learned nothing from Omar’s death. He died in excruciating pain, begging guards and nurses for help. For three days. When these hard-hearted adults finally took action, it was too late. His appendix had ruptured. In 2009, former nurse Dianne Demeritte pleaded guilty to culpable negligence, a misdemeanor. A small, unsatisfying measure of justice.

In Elord’s case, Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle’s office cleared guard Antwan Johnson of any blame in the deadly fight. Thankfully, a federal grand jury stepped up, indicting Johnson and citing evidence not included in the state attorney’s report.

The fact that the state ultimately turned a blind eye to the atrocity that resulted in Omar’s death in 2003 led directly to that of Elord in 2015.

The most recent grand jury cited this, too, acknowledging that another grand jury report, from more than a decade earlier after Omar’s death, cited pretty much the same dereliction at DJJ.

Grand jurors did cite some progress. This year, the Legislature approved 10 percent raises for detention officers, though not enough to attract better recruits; officials will be allowed to inspect juvenile lockups “at their pleasure;” and surveillance cameras will get an upgrade.

None of these reforms will make an ounce of difference, however, until there is an unequivocal message that supervisors from the top down will be punished for tolerating abusive behavior in the ranks. (DJJ Secretary Christina Daly sent a message to that effect — then, last week, resigned.); DJJ must hire better-prepared, better-trained guards who understand that their job is not to taunt, beat, or neglect their very challenging charges. There cannot be a barely visible line between the criminal behavior that landed juveniles in lockup and that of the grownups hired to guard them. Independent monitors are imperative.

Daly, though credited with steering juveniles away into treatment and community services, nevertheless was slow to acknowledge the atrocities happening under her watch. And any new secretary might not last beyond the gubernatorial election. Unfortunately, DJJ might be in for instability. Daly got one thing right, however: In a Herald interview, she said that changing DJJ’s culture “takes time.” Unfortunately, the time to start was right after Omar Paisley died 15 years ago.