Youth-jail locks flagged as peril in ’02, still used

Fixes pledged, but not funds

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - FRONT PAGE - AMANDA CLAIRE CURCIO

The locks that keep young Arkansans be­hind bars at a ju­ve­nile jail in Alexan­der still haven’t been re­placed — de­spite years of warn­ings that the ob­so­lete dead­bolts posed safety con­cerns and de­spite law­mak­ers’ prom­ises to pay for up­dates.

At least 169 locks at the Arkansas Ju­ve­nile As­sess­ment and Treat­ment Cen­ter are se­cured by a heavy bolt and latch mech­a­nism that can be opened only man­u­ally, one by one.

That means in case of an emer­gency, such as a fire, “cru­cial sec­onds, min­utes would be lost,” said Sharon Comwell, a lawyer for Dis­abil­ity Rights Arkansas, a non­profit ad­vo­cacy group with fed­eral mon­i­tor­ing author­ity.

“It’s highly likely chil­dren will be trapped and po­ten­tially per­ish due to the an­ti­quated lock­ing sys­tem,” Comwell said.

Comwell de­scribed the locks at the Alexan­der site as “the most dif­fi­cult to ma­neu­ver.” But dozens of other ju­ve­nile fa­cil­i­ties, in­clud­ing county-run de­ten­tion cen­ters, pose sim­i­lar risks be­cause their locks can’t be re­motely opened.

Last Au­gust, dur­ing a Joint Per­for­mance Re­view Com­mit­tee meet­ing held at the Alexan­der lockup, law­mak­ers vowed to find the $1 mil­lion needed to re­place the locks at the Alexan­der fa­cil­ity.

Top of­fi­cers from Rite of Pas­sage, a Ne­vada-based com­pany that runs the youth jail for the state, told com­mit­tee mem­bers that they were wor­ried about the locks, as well as the site’s “gen­eral de­cline in main­te­nance.”

The ex­ec­u­tives did not pro­vide any ex­am­ples of the 120-bed fa­cil­ity’s dis­re­pair

dur­ing that meet­ing. Law­mak­ers did not ask ques­tions about it ei­ther.

How­ever, Rep. Kim Ham­mer, R-Ben­ton, a co-chair­man of the leg­isla­tive panel, said he was “ex­tremely, ex­tremely con­cerned” af­ter Depart­ment of Hu­man Ser­vices of­fi­cials tes­ti­fied that the state would be li­able if a dis­as­ter in­volv­ing the locks oc­curred.

Af­ter the meet­ing, Ham­mer told the Arkansas Demo­crat-Gazette that leg­is­la­tors would “work hard to get the money.”

No funds were set aside for the locks dur­ing the 2017 leg­isla­tive ses­sion.

Yet, the state Divi­sion of Youth Ser­vices was given the go-ahead to spend the money to re­place the locks — if the dol­lars be­come avail­able.

All state agen­cies com­pete for cap­i­tal projects fund­ing from the same pot of money. There are more than $1 bil­lion in cap­i­tal project re­quests, but only $20 mil­lion to $35 mil­lion avail­able, ac­cord­ing to the Depart­ment of Fi­nance and Ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Amy Webb, a spokesman for the Hu­man Ser­vices Depart­ment, which over­sees the youth ser­vices agency, said that up­dat­ing the locks re­mains a pri­or­ity.

“There’s a lim­ited amount of avail­able fund­ing for cap­i­tal projects,” Webb said. “It’s re­ally for the most crit­i­cal and ur­gent needs.”

The Hu­man Ser­vices staff is try­ing to “find ef­fi­cien­cies” within the depart­ment’s bud­get that can go to­ward re­plac­ing the locks, she added.

Ham­mer said he was not aware that the old locks re­mained. The Divi­sion of Youth Ser­vices “was sup­posed to make this a pri­or­ity item,” he said.

“This is an ac­ci­dent wait­ing to hap­pen. … Why haven’t we found the money yet?” he said. “We can’t turn a blind eye to it. The num­ber one pri­or­ity is the health and safety of any­one in state cus­tody, re­gard­less of why they’re in there.”

Rite of Pas­sage coun­sel Debby Thet­ford Nye said the com­pany has worked with state of­fi­cials to “ex­plore op­tions avail­able to ad­dress the con­cern.”

Nye ac­knowl­edged that the com­pany — which has a $ 34.1 mil­lion, three-year con­tract to run the Alexan­der cen­ter — was wait­ing on money for the locks from Arkansas’ cap­i­tal projects fund.

“We are hope­ful the sit­u­a­tion will be con­cluded soon,” she added.

LOCKED IN

In 1959, 21 boys at a ju­ve­nile fa­cil­ity per­ished dur­ing Pu­laski County’s dead­li­est fire in recorded his­tory.

Through acrid smoke, the boys clawed at the steel mesh in­tended to keep them from es­cap­ing through the win­dows. Flames sprinted up the walls and across the ceil­ing.

Guards had locked the dor­mi­tory doors from the out­side be­fore the boys went to bed, as they did ev­ery night.

The rick­ety De­pres­sion­era build­ing on the Arkansas Ne­gro Boys’ In­dus­trial School cam­pus in Wrightsville buck­led be­fore firetrucks ar­rived.

Af­ter mount­ing scru­tiny and sev­eral rounds of in­quiries,

then-Gov. Or­val Faubus ad­mit­ted that faulty wiring could have contributed to the fire. A Pu­laski County grand jury later found that state of­fi­cials al­lowed the school’s con­di­tions to de­te­ri­o­rate and that law­mak­ers, aware of these cir­cum­stances, failed to pro­vide the money needed to make changes.

The same fate could be­fall the youths at the cur­rent Alexan­der fa­cil­ity, pub­lic de­fender Dorcy Corbin says.

“Have the at­ti­tudes changed is the ques­tion,” said Corbin. “It seems like the an­swer is no; oth­er­wise it would be fixed.”

State of­fi­cials have known that the locks at the Alexan­der fa­cil­ity posed a dan­ger for at least 15 years, records show.

Dur­ing a 2002 in­spec­tion of the fa­cil­ity, U.S. Depart­ment of Jus­tice in­ves­ti­ga­tors flagged the lock­ing sys­tem for not in­clud­ing a re­mote un­lock­ing de­vice. The fa­cil­ity was then op­er­ated by a for-profit com­pany called Cor­nell Cos. Inc.

“This is es­pe­cially dan­ger­ous given the ab­sence of ad­e­quate fire sup­pres­sion and smoke de­tec­tion equip­ment,” the fed­eral agency as­serted in a let­ter sent to then-Gov. Mike Huck­abee.

In a 19-page 2014 re­port, Dis­abil­ity Rights Arkansas found that the old locks re­mained. The non­profit con­tin­ued to voice its con­cerns about the locks, year af­ter year.

The youth lockup’s dif­fi­cult-to-open locks have not been noted in an­nual fire in­spec­tion records as a con­cern re­gard­ing blocked or ob­structed ac­cess to ex­its, ac­cord­ing to Bryant Fire Depart­ment in­spec­tion reports between 2012 and 2017.

A Fire Depart­ment rep­re­sen­ta­tive said he wasn’t overly con­cerned with the locks be­cause the area is “lim­ited in com­bustible ma­te­ri­als,” and there is a sprin­kler sys­tem that “should hope­fully come out in case of a fire.”

State of­fi­cials could not con­firm last week whether the sprin­klers were added since the Depart­ment of Jus­tice sent its find­ings to the state 15 years ago.

The Jus­tice Depart­ment’s in­spec­tion came af­ter the Demo­crat-Gazette ex­posed the fa­cil­ity’s abysmal con­di­tions in 1998.

Since then, the news­pa­per has chron­i­cled the mal­treat­ment and abuse of teenagers at the Alexan­der lockup, which has been man­aged by a string of pri­vate con­trac­tors.

The lat­est abuse al­le­ga­tion at the Alexan­der site comes from video footage de­pict­ing a guard as­sault­ing a com­pli­ant youth last De­cem­ber. Ac­cord­ing to Rite of Pas­sage, the guard was fired, and Arkansas State Po­lice were no­ti­fied of the in­ci­dent.

Rite of Pas­sage, which be­gan op­er­a­tion of the Alexan­der site last Au­gust, has had its own ex­pe­ri­ence with fire in­side one of its ju­ve­nile fa­cil­i­ties.

In Fe­bru­ary of 2015, at youth lockup in ru­ral Ne­vada, teens armed with makeshift weapons ri­oted and set fire to two build­ings. Two staff mem­bers were in­jured, and 10 youths es­caped. The com­pany was em­broiled in a civil law­suit for months with the state of Ne­vada about which party was re­spon­si­ble for dam­ages un­til Ne­vada set­tled in 2016.

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