Op-Ed

Fourteen years after Omar Paisley died, juvenile detention still ‘repulsive’ place

BY CONCEPCIÓN PORTELA

The Miami Herald series ‘Fight Club’ highlighted young detainees who died in Florida’s juvenile justice system.
The Miami Herald series ‘Fight Club’ highlighted young detainees who died in Florida’s juvenile justice system. Miami Herald

More than 13 years ago, 21 men and women were called to serve on the Miami-Dade County Grand Jury’s spring term. We were asked to investigate the death of 17-year-old Omar Paisley, who succumbed to a burst appendix at the Miami-Dade Regional Juvenile Detention Center after pleading with staff for medical help. Our task was difficult, and our journey through the judicial system was disturbing and enlightening.

I was selected to serve as the foreperson.

As an immigrant, I value the rights and privileges that come with my American citizenship and I was proud to do my civic duty. When we were assigned the investigation into Omar’s death, I knew that, because I am a mother of two daughters, this issue would evoke deep emotions. Omar could have been anyone’s child.

I never imagined that those nine months would cause me sleepless nights as more and more information was uncovered.

Despite the great personal and professional sacrifices made by each of us, we were, above all, determined to make recommendations that, if implemented, would and could prevent another unnecessary death in the detention center.

Our nine-month investigation revealed a juvenile justice system plagued by a lack of commitment, a lack of supervision, a lack of guidelines, a lack of proper structure, and a lack of resources. More important, we were appalled at the total lack of humanity demonstrated by many of the detention workers charged with the safety and care of our youth.

We worked tirelessly and issued our recommendations with the hope of prompting changes in a shattered system. We proudly thought that we could make a difference.

On Jan. 27, 2004, we presented our 47-page final report, outlining 20 recommendations, to the Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ).

Fast forward 14 years and the same problems and inadequacies are present in the juvenile justice system: lack of commitment, a lack of supervision, a lack of guidelines, a lack of proper structure, a lack of resources and a total lack of humanity.

In the wake of Omar’s death and our final report, two dozen juvenile justice officers and administrators were fired or resigned. Over the course of the next 14 years, administrators and detention workers would come and go, and yet the issues at the DJJ remained unresolved.

At one time, a new DJJ secretary promised the agency would “treat every child as if he was your own.” Martin Lee Anderson, Eric Perez, Andre Sheffield, and Elord Revolte; were these boys treated by the system as if they were anyone’s own child? These boys died under eerily similar circumstances as Omar Paisley.

Though not listed on their death certificates as the cause of death, these boys died from total lack of humanity and empathy.

It is repulsive that the DJJ continues to be plagued by the same issues year after year, as the Miami Herald series, “Fight Club” reported. No amount of investigations, reports, recommendations, and changes in leadership and legislation have made a significant change to the broken culture of the DJJ.

Change never occurs overnight, but hasn’t 14 years been enough?

As a society, we must be appalled. These issues must be addressed. The time for talk has passed. It is the time for action.

Children are one-third of our population and all of our future.

Fourteen years have passed and nothing has changed except I am older now and the proud grandmother of four.

Omar could still be anyone’s child, and I still have sleepless nights as I lay awake thinking that maybe we didn’t do enough. And I wonder: What can I do now?

Concepción Portela was the foreperson of the foreperson Miami-Dade County grand jury’s spring Term in 2003.

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