Potentially Life-Threatening Conditions in Juvenile Detention Center, Public Defender Says

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One day in June, Shantell McNair headed to the Broward Juvenile Detention Center in Fort Lauderdale to visit her 13-year-old son. She was turned away without explanation.

For weeks, McNair, who is 28 and lives in Pompano Beach, tried calling the center to ask why she hadn’t been able to see her son, whom she identifies by the initials A.R. Each time, she was told she’d get a call back. There was no return call, nor had her son made contact, which was unusual. Finally, she received a message from the Department of Children and Families that A.R. was about to be released from the hospital. He’d been in treatment there for 21 days after suffering from a potentially fatal asthma attack.

Even more disturbing: He wound up in the hospital after staffers at the detention center placed a “snack bounty” on him, according to the Office of the Public Defender, which represents A.R. It’s a tactic that’s well-known at other juvenile jails, including the Miami-Dade Detention Center, where a 17-year-old died last year after he was beaten to death by as many as 20 other kids. When staff members feel that a juvenile is acting up or has disrespected them, they reward other kids with snacks like honeybuns in exchange for attacking him or her. Then, they write up an incident report saying the kids got into a fight — thus evading responsibility.

After A.R. was hit on the head by another kid, staffers placed him in a confinement room that had recently been sprayed down with bleach, public defenders say. Soon, he couldn’t breathe and had to be taken to the emergency room.

McNair thinks her son was targeted as a result of a gang rivalry between Fort Lauderdale (where many of the officers at the detention center are from) and Pompano Beach. “My boy’s got a mouth, but he’s not bad,” she says. “That doesn’t give you the right to tell other inmates from Lauderdale to jump on him.”

This is hardly the first worrisome episode to take place at the juvenile detention center. Last Friday, chief assistant public defender Gordon Weekes delivered a letter to the Department of Juvenile Justice, asking that it address the potentially hazardous conditions at the Broward facility. In addition to the incident with A.R., he notes,  a youth detained at the center was recently locked in a van for two hours after a court appearance; both his feet and hands were in cuffs. With temperatures hitting 86 degrees that day, this could easily have been fatal. Meanwhile, Weeks adds, for more than a month, the building has smelled of raw sewage, suggesting that toxic hydrogen sulfide gas may be leaking into the facility and causing serious health damage.

Weekes believes many of the center’s problems are due to a serious staffing shortage that has many employees doing mandatory overtime. “They’re frustrated, they’re tired, and it’s a recipe for disaster when you have an overworked staff working with kids who have issues,” he says. “The staff are overworked and underpaid, and as a result they have a short fuse.” Meanwhile, the center has lacked a superintendent for nine months.

Ever since it opened in 1980, the Broward Juvenile Detention Center has had problems. In 1989, the Youth Law Center successfully brought a class action lawsuit against the facility, arguing children had suffered from overcrowding, unsanitary conditions, and abusive treatment. Thirteen years later, a New Times investigation concluded little had changed. In 2011, the Palm Beach Post uncovered another disturbing revelation: Doctors who should have been barred from practicing due to felony charges or medical malpractice lawsuits were given jobs at the detention center and allowed to prescribe drugs to kids.

It’s also worth noting that the facility reflects a huge racial disparity in the juvenile justice system: 82.5% of kids incarcerated in the detention center are black, even though black youth between the ages of 10 and 17 make up only 34.7% of their age group in Broward County.

Earlier this year, Weekes reported a number of other complaints to the Department of Juvenile Justice. In January, a child complained about being thrown to the ground, beaten, and choked by staff members. That incident is currently under investigation by the Fort Lauderdale Police Department. In February, another child was beaten so badly that his jaw had to be wired shut, but staffers allegedly refused to take him to the hospital for two days and gave him Tylenol instead.

“I’ve been dealing with this place for years, and every day it’s something new,” Weekes says. “It’s like Whack-a-Mole. You get them to address one problem, and four other problems come up.”

The Department of Juvenile Justice is currently investigating the allegations and says it’s found a new superintendent to take over the Broward facility.

McNair, who works two jobs at Wendy’s and Checkers and has two other kids at home, said she wanted to file a complaint against the detention center but was overwhelmed with her other responsibilities and didn’t know how to begin. “This is all new to me,” she said. “I’ve never been in trouble, so I don’t know how to go about it when it’s his word versus the officer’s word.”

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