Changes continued at the troubled Augusta Youth Development Campus this week, as its interim director was dismissed late Monday, several new officers came on board Tuesday and the selection of a full-time director was expected soon.
Avery Niles, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice, said in a statement Monday night that Melvin Womble had been removed from his duties.
Womble, former assistant director of security, had been interim director since November after the departure of Director Ronald Brawner, who resigned after five youths escaped from the facility that month.
Niles also announced Monday two new Augusta YDC leadership appointments. James L. Reid, who comes to the YDC from the Augusta area and has a long law enforcement and military background, will be assistant director of security. Donnell Collins, who also comes from the Augusta area and has a military and juvenile justice background, will be captain of corrections officers.
“I am pleased to express my confidence in Assistant Director Reid and Capt. Collins,” Niles said in a news release. “We made these two key hires after an exhaustive search, and we’re very close to hiring a new director. But now I’m doing more than filling a job opening for an administrator. My strategy is to name an experienced correctional professional who will serve as the final link for an Augusta Leadership Team capable of taking-on one of our greatest challenges in Georgia’s juvenile justice system.”
A new director is expected to be named after year-end holiday schedule delays, Niles said.
This week’s YDC changes come after 14 months of turmoil at the Mike Padgett Highway facility, which houses youthful offenders from around the state. A series of terminations, suspensions, dismissals and investigations have followed the fatal beating of a teenage resident in fall 2011, and continued to embarrass state officials with the November escape of five residents.
The situation began to attract public notice when 18-year-old Michael Everidge killed Jade Holder, 19, in a November 2011 fight that court testimony described as the result of a culture of violence.
Since the slaying, the state Department of Juvenile Justice has fired, moved or demoted more than a dozen employees, citing policy violations ranging from smuggling phones to inappropriate relationships with youths.
After Holder’s death, Gov. Nathan Deal appointed a new commissioner, Gale Buckner, who made numerous unannounced visits that frequently ended in firings. She was up to 11 firings when she retired a year later to become a judge in north Georgia.
In October, Everidge was sentenced to 17 years in prison for Holder’s death. Just hours after the gavel fell, five inmates escaped from the facility, stole a car and led police on a two-day chase from Augusta to Atlanta.
A timeline of events showed the escape occurring at 8:40 p.m., but there was no record of the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office being contacted for almost two hours.
The reason for the delay was never made public, but on Dec. 14, Department of Juvenile Justice spokesman Jim Shuler announced the firings of Junior Corrections Officer Dominique Harris and Corrections Sgt. Dorothy Blair over a “major security failure.”
The YDC has experienced a complete turnover among top personnel in the past 12 months. The director at the time of Holder’s death was dismissed and replaced by Sardis Police Chief Gary Jones on an interim basis. During his brief tenure, until the beginning of March, many staff members were released.
In March, Buckner introduced Ronald Brawner, who had a 21-year career with the Georgia Department of Corrections. Brawner, however, stepped down after the November escapes, and his deputy, Womble, stepped in. A month later, Womble was suspended with pay after a fight among five youths went unreported to the department’s central office. A 17-year-old’s jaw was broken, but the teen was not transferred to a hospital for several days.