News at Florida's juvenile detention centers has not been good lately. At some state-run facilities, teenagers are allegedly being doped up on anti-psychotic drugs to control their behavior. At Thompson Academy, a privately run lockup in Pembroke Pines, the owners have settled a federal lawsuit alleging that a teenaged boy was twice sexually assaulted by a male counselor. Now, the Broward attorney who first raised concerns about Thompson Academy says his clients are being abused at another privately run lockup, this one in West Palm Beach.
One teenaged boy alleged he was punched in the face by a counselor who had been transferred to the Palm Beach Juvenile Correctional Center from Thompson Academy. Another boy saw maggots in a fellow inmate's chicken dinner, and other residents said a staffer encouraged them to fight one another.
"I started to hear the same exact stories. It's like Groundhog Day all over again," says
Broward Chief Assistant Public Defender Gordon Weekes Jr., referring to the similarities between Thompson Academy and the Palm Beach Juvenile Correctional Center.
Youth Services International Inc. a Sarasota-based company, has state contracts to run Thompson Academy, the Palm Beach Juvenile Correctional Facility, and six other juvie lockups in Florida.
Last fall, lawyers from the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a federal class-action lawsuit on behalf of teenagers who alleged that Thompson was a violent, frightening place. One former resident claimed he was sexually assaulted by a counselor, another said he was slammed into a wall and choked by a guard, while others said they were deprived of food and medical attention.
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Attorneys for Youth Services International disputed the allegations, and the suit was settled a few weeks ago. Weekes, who represented some of the teenagers at Thompson, followed the case closely. Recently he visited other clients at the Palm Beach Juvenile Correctional Facility to talk to them about the use of prescription drugs at the lockup, which houses 118 teenaged boys who are considered "high risk" offenders. The teenagers began telling him stories about violence, maggots in their food, and leaking toilets in their living quarters.
One teenager, whom Weekes did not name, said he was punched by a staffer, got a bloody nose, and was seen by the facility's nurse. The incident was not reported to the police or outside authorities. The staffer has since been transferred out of the lockup, Weekes said.
Weekes described the incident and his other concerns about the facility in a letter to the Department of Juvenile Justice last month. "In light of the serious issues raised against Youth Services International, Inc. at another program, I am not assured or comfortable in assuming these are isolated incidents," he wrote. "This facility needs to be immediately reviewed."
Samadhi Jones, a spokesperson for the agency, said the allegations are now under review.