Squalid, violent juvenile-detention system gets what it pays for


By Carl Hiaasen



The horrors of Florida’s juvenile justice system, graphically documented in The Miami Herald’s recent “Fight Club” series, shocked almost nobody on the inside.

It was everyone else who was sickened by the videos of kids beating up other kids while guards watched. The officers themselves sometimes ordered the muggings, rewarding the “enforcers” with candy bars. For added entertainment, wagering took place.

One detainee, 17-year-old Elord Revolte, was beaten to death by a swarm of inmates in a Miami juvenile facility. Another was injured so severely that he lost a kidney.

Then there are the squalid stories of sexual predation, officers singling out inmates in exchange for special privileges. Another form of abuse is medical neglect — sick youths are sometimes branded “fakers” and left to suffer.

Obviously, a serious staffing issue plagues the state Department of Juvenile Justice and the private contractors that operate some of the lockups and residential programs. They’ve hired some real bad people, at a tragic cost.

When you see these awful videos and read these disturbing stories, keep this in mind: The starting annual pay for a DJJ detention officer is only $25,479.22.

And that’s if you’re lucky enough to get a job at a state-run facility. The largest private company contracted to run juvenile programs pays its new guards $9.50 an hour, which is beyond disgraceful.

The firm, ironically called TrueCore Behavioral Solutions, hires youth-care workers for less money than they can make working as a Walmart cashier. Welcome to the thrifty world of prison privatization, championed by Gov. Rick Scott and the Republican Legislature.

What happens when you pay rock-bottom wages?

You attract eager applicants like Uriah T. Harris, who’d been arrested 11 times on charges that included child neglect, battery, and domestic violence. If you thought such a busy rap sheet would disqualify Harris from interacting with troubled young inmates, you’d be wrong.

He lasted a couple years at the Avon Park Youth Academy, whacking kids with a broomstick he witlessly named “Broomie,” before he got canned.

Other hires by the juvenile system included scores of individuals who’d been fired from the staffs of adult prisons or local jails, or had been allowed to resign from those jobs while under investigation for improper behavior.

Among the parade of undistinguished candidates was Willie James Cox, who won a position as a youth-care worker after being charged with grabbing the breast of a fellow corrections officer at an adult prison in Quincy.

It was the third known incident of that type involving Cox, who was fired, convicted of misdemeanor battery and given a year’s probation. Nonetheless, he was soon hired by a residential center that provides mental-health services to youths in the Panhandle. He left that job in 2015.

DJJ Secretary Christina K. Daly acknowledged that her agency’s past hiring record is “alarming.” Inexplicably, background checks were done without seeking the disciplinary files of former adult corrections officers or other state employees.

Background checks were also conducted on behalf of private contract providers like TrueCore, though the DJJ wasn’t allowed to block the hiring of a particular applicant unless he or she had been convicted of a “disqualifying” crime.

That meant TrueCore theoretically was free to hire anybody terminated from a state prison who was never criminally prosecuted, no matter what behavior got them fired.

The surprise isn’t that so many creeps and losers end up as officers at juvenile lockups. The surprise — more of a miracle, really — is the resilience of the officers who are humane, honest, and hard-working.

Theirs is one of the toughest jobs in the justice system, and they ought to get compensated accordingly. Daly has set procedural reforms in motion, but the applicant pool for youth-care workers will never improve as long as the starting pay is $9.50.

“What other results do they expect to get from that?” mused Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd. “An absolute, total wreck.”

Shortly before the Herald series was published, Gov. Scott announced he would seek a 10 percent raise for juvenile-detention officers. He cited their “unique opportunity to help change lives and redirect our youth to a successful path.”

Even if the Legislature goes along, a DJJ pay hike won’t help all the workers employed by TrueCore. One important reform would be to rip up the state’s contract with that firm, and demand that it pays its staff a fair salary.

This isn’t about hiring people to coddle young offenders; it’s about hiring people who will at least try to help young offenders avoid becoming career felons.

Broomsticks and beat-downs don’t work.

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By Carl Hiaasen

Carl Hiaasen is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may write to him at: The Miami Herald, 3511 N.W. 91 Avenue, Doral, Fla. 33172; email: chiaasen@miamiherald.com.

Carl Hiaasen is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may write to him at: The Miami Herald, 3511 N.W. 91 Avenue, Doral, Fla. 33172; email: chiaasen@miamiherald.com.