Originally created 05/12/02

Race complaints shed light on youth facility's problems



When black employees spoke out about unfair working conditions at the Augusta Youth Development Campus, they offered a rare glimpse inside the rehabilitation center for troubled teens.

Officers and nurses say policies have been violated, supervision is lacking and the boys locked up in the south Augusta facility are suffering.

Finding out about incidents inside facilities run by the state Department of Juvenile Justice can be almost impossible. Juvenile offenders' identities are closely guarded, and even if the inquirer has an inmate's name, site officials rarely will confirm that the person is there. What goes on behind the barbed wire fences and inside the scattering of brick buildings, located across Mike Padgett Highway from the Procter & Gamble plant, is kept largely confidential.

Acting Director Mitchell Sowell left the facility earlier this month, choosing not to apply for the director's job. The move came as black employees hurled public allegations of racial discrimination and inequities in treatment of black and white workers.

Mr. Sowell declined to comment on the record about the matter.

In the past several weeks, employees have told other stories that point to improprieties and unsavory conditions. Incident and medical reports obtained by The Augusta Chronicle support their stories:

  • In February, someone phoned the facility asking for an 18-year-old detainee. The caller identified herself as his girlfriend "Christy." An officer dialed star-69 to trace the number, which matched the home number of a nurse at the facility. The nurse later resigned.
  • Two boys in the cottage for sex offenders were caught having sex in a supply room in March. One of the boys, age 15, said in a written statement that he allowed the act because the other boy had threatened him and he was scared.
  • A boy was treated for a rat bite on the shoulder in January. Employees say he was bitten in a cell.
  • On Dec. 1, a guard doing cell checks found a 14-year-old boy hanging from a shoelace tied to a ceiling vent. The boy later said he was depressed because he couldn't make his mother happy. The officer's report initially listed the incident as a suicide attempt, but the code was later changed to that of a less serious suicide gesture.
  • Rick McDevitt, a juvenile justice watchdog and the president of the Georgia Alliance for Children, said these are symptoms of widespread problems in the department. In 2000, the U.S. Justice Department said Georgia's 32 youth detention centers were overcrowded, lacked well-trained staff and did not respond well to mental health needs.

    "I think what you've got here is a picture of a troubled system," Mr. McDevitt said. "The system stinks. The people stink. The delusion that they're helping kids stinks."

    ACCORDING TO Department of Juvenile Justice policy, most incident reports are to be sent to the department's Quality Assurance office in Atlanta. The most serious ones are investigated by Quality Assurance, and others, though they are reported to Atlanta, are handled on-site.

    Suicide attempts and suicide gestures are both reported to Atlanta. If the report involving the shoestring hanging had been classified as a suicide attempt, rather than a suicide gesture, Quality Assurance would have been called to investigate. The Atlanta agency investigated anyway because Patricia Walker, a juvenile correctional officer at the Augusta facility, alleged a cover-up.

    The alteration to the report was initialed "MS." The change was made by Mr. Sowell after he consulted with the mental health director, and their decision took into account the boy's history and psychological problems, said Jaci Vickers, spokeswoman for Juvenile Justice.

    "We don't believe he changed it to hide the numbers," she said. "It was not because of anything clandestine."

    The hanging attempt in Augusta preceded two suicides in other Department of Juvenile Justice detention centers. Richard Brown, 14, of Martinez, hanged himself in the Milledgeville facility Dec. 16. Gerard Glenn, 14, hanged himself in Atlanta on Jan. 5.

    Officer Walker was the first to speak publicly about conditions at the Augusta YDC. She is one of three employees who have filed discrimination complaints with the Georgia Commission on Equal Opportunity and the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and she has been on paid administrative leave since February.

    Officer Walker said Mr. Sowell discouraged the filing of reports on every incident because too many reports were coming out of the Augusta campus. But employees were tipping off the Atlanta office anyway, and secretly faxing reports there, she said.

    "If we don't file those, everyone thinks everything is A-OK there," Officer Walker said.

    THE INCIDENT REPORT involving the nurse and the 18-year-old almost didn't make it to Atlanta. It was given a code that, according to policy, should have been reported to Quality Assurance, but handwritten beside the code were the words "stays here."

    The report did end up with Quality Assurance, which investigated the matter and substantiated employee misconduct on the nurse's part, Ms. Vickers said.

    Juvenile Justice Commissioner Orlando Martinez visited the Augusta campus Thursday to allow employees to air their concerns. In an interview later that day, Mr. Martinez said most employees want to work together and improve conditions for the teens.

    Since being appointed commissioner by Gov. Roy Barnes in 1999, Mr. Martinez has worked to bring the system up to federal standards. A 1998 federal report found a "pattern of egregious conditions violating the federal rights of youths." That report cited the fatal hanging in 1997 of 16-year-old Rodney J. Hall in the Augusta YDC after a staff member neglected to conduct 15-minute checks.

    Since then, the department has raised officer salaries by about $3,000 and pumped millions into modernizing facilities. A new Regional Youth Detention Center is being built in Augusta, and the local YDC is getting a new cafeteria and other renovations.

    Suicides and sexual assaults are a societal problem and are bound to seep into a center for problem teens, Mr. Martinez said. As for the rat bite, he says it's the first one he's ever heard of in a Georgia facility.

    One way the department is handling problems in its detention centers is through improved training of employees, something the department has been struggling with, Mr. Martinez said.

    "I don't want to tell you that institutions are good places. They're not," the commissioner said. "But the fact is we have kids that are being institutionalized, and we're constantly working to find ways to keep them safe."

    Reach Johnny Edwards at (706) 823-3225 or johnny.edwards@augustachronicle.com.