Originally created 06/17/04

Youth prison set to reopen



Augusta's youth prison is scheduled to reopen this fall as a state-run operation that once again will house the state's most mentally disturbed juvenile offenders.

On Wednesday the state Legislature's Fiscal Affairs subcommittee approved transferring $8.3 million from other accounts within the Department of Juvenile Justice to cover most of the nearly $8.6 million needed to reopen the Augusta Youth Development Campus in south Augusta.

The YDC will house 100 to 113 juveniles and employ about 170 workers, according to news releases from Gov. Sonny Perdue and state Sen. Randy Hall, a member of the subcommittee.

Mr. Hall said the reopening is good news for Augusta, which will keep the facility and get back most of the state jobs lost there when the YDC was turned over to a private operator last summer.

"There were other options besides Augusta," Mr. Hall said.

The YDC has sat dormant since February, when the Attorney General's Office advised Juvenile Justice Commissioner Albert Murray not to allow Florida-based Youth Services International to take control of the campus. Mr. Murray chose to shut down the YDC rather than leave it in the hands of Augusta-based Unique Solutions, which had successfully protested the bidding process based on Youth Services' hiring of a state bid evaluator 10 days after it was awarded the contract.

Republican Sens. Hall and Don Cheeks had pushed for the YDC to reopen as a state facility. They and other Augusta legislators had opposed former Juvenile Justice Commissioner Orlando Martinez's decision a year ago to privatize the campus, a move that put 120 people out of work.

Mr. Martinez alleged that state workers were allowing boys to assault one another in exchange for money and selling them cigarettes, drugs and pornography, but when no indictments resulted from an extensive probe by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, Mr. Cheeks and Mr. Hall asked Mr. Perdue to fire Mr. Martinez, which he did.

The closing caused about 60 boys with strict regimens of medication and therapy to be shuffled to other jails. Most were moved to the Metro Regional Youth Detention Center in Atlanta.

Among them was Betty Hampton's 17-year-old son, who suffers from borderline personality disorder and is serving a five-year sentence. She said her son remains in Atlanta and has passed the time buckling down on schoolwork, but his mental health care has been lackluster.

Ms. Hampton said she'd rather see him placed in a treatment center than go back to Augusta.

"I think that he'll go into a depression again," Ms. Hampton said. "I think it will be the same roller coaster."

Still unanswered is who at the reopened facility will be in charge of mental health care. Before privatization, Unique Solutions had a contract for mental health services, and the state employees functioned mainly as security officers.

Calls to Mr. Murray's office Wednesday afternoon were not immediately returned.

Rick McDevitt, a juvenile justice watchdog and president of the Georgia Alliance for Children, said a facility like the one in Augusta is needed to give special attention to mentally ill offenders but that its guards and therapists must be trained to deal with disturbed children. He said he hopes the move to reopen the YDC is about more than just giving fired state employees their jobs back.

"My hope is that this promise of a mental health facility isn't just a ploy," Mr. McDevitt said.

Mr. Martinez, the former commissioner, said Wednesday that he does not think reopening the YDC as a state facility is in the best interests of the state's mentally ill youths.

"But I sincerely hope it's a good decision. I don't want anything bad to happen to children," Mr. Martinez said.

"Let's see if these kids get the right treatment."

The governor's news release said Mr. Murray is confident that the department "can do better with these troubled young people" and understands that he will be held accountable.

"You're damn right Murray ought to be held accountable," Mr. McDevitt said. "I would like to hold the governor accountable for holding Murray accountable."

Morris News Service writer Brandon Larrabee contributed to this article.

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

When hiring begins, preference will be given to the state employees who lost their jobs last summer, but not to Unique Solutions employees who lost their jobs in February.