Crowded Cage

Last February, as Chris Hanley rode with his stepbrother to a neighborhood video store, Sunrise police pulled over their white Pontiac Grand Am. Hanley's stepbrother had run a red light, and when the cops ran a background check on the two, they discovered that the 17-year-old Hanley not only had a lengthy juvenile rap sheet but was currently in violation of a court-ordered house arrest. Now, instead of taking in a few new releases with his family, Hanley began another spin through the juvenile justice system.

At his court date the next day, the judge confirmed Hanley's worst fears. Because of his long list of priors, the infraction would cost him another five days of his life at the Broward County Juvenile Detention Center. This would be the fourth time the Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) had remanded Hanley to a secure detention facility.

Despite his experience with the system, Hanley was devastated. He'd stayed out of trouble for the previous year and a half, and the thought of returning to the center terrified him. "It took every ounce of me to get him to face it," his mother, Sandra Renninger, remembers. "I kept telling him, "This is your last time there. Your last time ever.'"

More than half a year later, Renninger and Hanley quietly talk about his experiences at the center while sitting across from each other on the living room couch. Outside, an evening rain drizzles the streets of their modest Sunrise neighborhood as the rest of their clan settles in for the night. Hanley's six-month-old daughter gurgles from a navy blue stroller while Nickelodeon murmurs cartoons from the television. His girlfriend reads at a black lacquered dining room table; his preteen sister bops about the house answering the phone and petting his yellow pit bull puppy. Table lamps light the room with a cozy glow, and a china cabinet displays porcelain figurines and family snapshots.

A lanky six feet, two inches tall, with his baseball cap cocked at a rakish angle over his blond buzz cut, Hanley doesn't look or act like the kind of kid who intimidates easily. He's a bit reticent, perhaps out of shame, when he discusses his life of petty crime, a litany of charges ranging from alcohol possession to credit card fraud. Hardened as he might seem, he says his previous trips to the center had scared him straight.

"It had been two years since I got in trouble," says Hanley. "I stopped two years ago. I had all this stuff behind me...." his voice trails off, and he shakes his head. "I don't want to be in that place anymore."

Considering what he experienced during his incarcerations at the center, the sentiment is understandable. Hanley's account of life in juvie lockup describes a facility fraught with violence, filth, and a seemingly callous disregard for the well-being of the youthful offenders therein. He knows he wasn't being sent to summer camp, but Hanley says the experience went beyond just punishment and had nothing at all to do with rehabilitation. Daily life at the center, he says, was dominated by ganglike fights, overcrowding, unsanitary toilets, and an overworked and jaded staff.

His tales of woe are distressingly familiar. Almost since its inception, the Broward County Regional Juvenile Detention Center has faced the dual challenges of a booming population and a shrinking budget. Within the past two decades, juvenile-services advocates have first condemned the center as a failure, then lauded it as a model. Some observers and even some former employees of the center say that the problems that plagued the bad old days have returned.

Today the DJJ's stated goal is not to save troublesome children from themselves but to protect the public from these dangerous youths. Child advocates say the department has it backward and should once again shift its focus to helping these kids. Because detention centers are typically juvie offenders' first contact with incarceration, many advocates feel that these facilities waste the opportunity to provide kids with any kind of fostering or rehabilitation.

What children get instead is a dangerous place to cool their heels while waiting for court dates.Built in 1980, the center sits wedged between Broward Boulevard and the concrete underbelly of I-95. Its façade hasn't changed much since then. It still resembles most prisons. Barbed wire, drab paint, a lone flagpole sprouting from the front parking lot: a dismal place built for the sole purpose of imprisoning juvenile offenders, some as young as ten years old.

By the late '80s, some serious problems plagued the facility. To begin with, the detainee population was disproportionately black and Hispanic. The out-of-whack ratio contradicted one of the mandates of the 1976 Federal Juvenile Justice Act, which sought to prevent overrepresentation of minority youths in detention. Worse yet, admissions to the center increased at an alarming rate, mostly because, at the time, detention criteria for youths were loosely defined; children could be incarcerated for truancy, shoplifting, and other smalltime offenses. In fact, throughout the decade, the number of kids referred to detention centers across Florida increased by almost 50 percent.

KEEP NEW TIMES BROWARD-PALM BEACH FREE... Since we started New Times Broward-Palm Beach, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of South Florida, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Emma Trelles