Some Arkansas teenagers in state custody have spent the past several weeks confined to unheated dorms during below-freezing nights, showering in mold-infested stalls and living with shortages of supplies such as shampoo.
Those are among a score of findings of mistreatment at two state-run juvenile facilities cited in a five-page letter mailed recently to state officials by Disability Rights Arkansas, an advocacy group that operates under federal authority.
“Due to the dire conditions and circumstances at the facilities, the neglect rises to a level of abuse,” wrote Thomas Nichols, the group’s managing attorney. “[It] Photo: Susan Madden Lankford
not only violates health and safety codes, it lacks common decency.”
The group sent one of its inspectors to the state-run Juvenile Treatment Center and Juvenile Correctional Facility in Dermott on Dec. 20, after receiving anonymous complaints about the conditions there.
Photos taken at the time of the December inspections, which were also attached to the letter, detail signs of neglect: pools of standing water at the end of a hall, an entryway framed by shattered glass with a jagged hole, a clogged garbage disposal drain encircled by slimy bits of food.
Because of the state’s procurement system, requests for repairs go unanswered for months; youths don’t get supplies, such as winter jackets and shampoo, in a timely manner; and food shipments run about two weeks late, the Disability Rights inspectors also found.
“We need to take a step back and think, ‘What are our next options here?'” said Nichols. “We can just keep issuing these letters, watch them fall in a black hole — or we can do something different.”
After receiving the letter, Youth Services Division staff members visited both Dermott lockups and will do so again today, said Amy Webb, a spokesman for the Department of Human Services, which oversees the youth agency.
“We take the safety of our youth seriously,” Webb said. “Some of the issues … raised should have already been addressed.”
The division also expects to release a formal response Monday, which will contain steps to fix remaining issues, she said.
Youth agency staff members immediately addressed some findings, including repairing furnaces, finding available laundry machines and ordering new kitchen equipment to replace equipment that “reached end-of-life usage,” Webb said. Other issues require more time, she continued. For instance, structural work is needed to fix the standing water.
Disability Rights Arkansas inspectors said they did note improvements being made at the Dermott facilities in the summer. Workers were repairing a roof and building a shed on the property.
“It looked like they were starting to make a little bit of progress,” said Kris Stewart, one of the disability group’s monitors.
The latest letter echoes complaints contained in a letter the group sent to the Youth Services Division and a handful of other juvenile-justice advocates last January.
At that time, the nonprofit found that the conditions at six of the seven youth jails — which the state had just taken over, at the governor’s direction — had deteriorated, mostly because of previous private facility operators who ran the sites without much oversight by the youth division.
Teens lived in quarters reeking of urine, for example; they didn’t have access to adequate schooling and required mental health and substance abuse treatment.
The correctional unit can house up to 32 males age 18-21, while the treatment center can house up to 30 adolescents.
Disability Rights Arkansas staff members continue to inspect the youth lockups three to four times a year. The nonprofit’s monitoring efforts began after the U.S. Department of Justice unearthed instances of abuse and misconduct at the Arkansas Juvenile Assessment and Treatment Center near Alexander, the intake facility for the state’s juvenile-justice system.
The Human Services Department is new to running the seven youth lockups, taking control of the sites in Colt, Dermott, Harrisburg, Lewisville and Mansfield beginning in January of 2017. In the past, the facilities were run by Arkansas nonprofits and before that, private companies, which also had rocky histories involving the mistreatment of detained youths.
The state agency intends to relinquish control of the lockups by next year, but Disability Rights Arkansas doesn’t think that’s a good idea. Nichols said:
We see what happens when there is private control of these facilities. That is rife with problems itself. If we’re ever going to stop the school-to-prison pipeline, we’re going to need to do something about these facilities.
© Humane Exposures / Susan Madden Lankford