Some lockup

A dis­as­ter wait­ing to hap­pen

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - EDITORIAL PAGE -

IT’S BEEN more than a decade now since the state—that’s us, fel­low cit­i­zens—had been warned that the locks that keep ju­ve­niles in Arkansas’ ap­pro­pri­ately named lock­ups might keep them all too locked up. Some­times, as in case of fire, they should be able to run for their lives. A dis­as­ter has hap­pened be­fore, and it can hap­pen again un­less and un­til the whole state wakes up and hears the fire alarm that’s been ring­ing steadily since 2002.

“It’s highly likely,” says Sharon Cow­ell, a lawyer who rep­re­sents Dis­abil­ity Rights Arkansas, that “chil­dren will be trapped and po­ten­tially per­ish due to the an­ti­quated lock­ing sys­tem.” No­body can say we haven’t been warned time and again. What’s more, dozens of ju­ve­nile jails through­out the state pose the same dan­ger to their in­mates be­cause their locks, too, can’t be opened by re­mote con­trol.

Just last year state Rep. Kim Ham­mer of Ben­ton, who co-chairs the Joint Per­for­mance Re­view Com­mit­tee of this state’s leg­is­la­ture, said he was “ex­tremely, ex­tremely con­cerned” af­ter the state’s Depart­ment of Hu­man Ser­vices ac­knowl­edged that the state could lose a law­suit if those locks were found at fault. No kid­ding. Not just a law­suit but young lives could be lost if Arkansas con­tin­ues to ig­nore the lessons of its own sad ex­pe­ri­ence.

For in 1959, back when Faugress was still in bloom, 21 boys at a ju­ve­nile lockup in Pu­laski County, the state’s most pop­u­lous, died in the dead­li­est fire in the county’s his­tory. The boys clawed at the steel-mesh win­dows in an at­tempt to get out, but in vain. Their deaths, and their des­per­a­tion, should haunt all of us still. The di­lap­i­dated old struc­ture on the grounds of the Arkansas Ne­gro Boys’ In­dus­trial School in Wrightsville col­lapsed even be­fore any firetrucks could get there. A grand jury would find that the state had al­lowed the school to crum­ble, and failed to ap­pro­pri­ate the money that might have saved those boys.

“Have the at­ti­tudes changed, is the ques­tion?” asks pub­lic de­fender Dorcy Corbin, and promptly an­swers it: “It seems like the an­swer is no, oth­er­wise [the locks] would be fixed.” Ac­cord­ing to dis­patches, they haven’t been. Back in 2002, an in­spec­tion of the lockup by the fed­eral Depart­ment of Jus­tice found that the dan­ger had become only clearer and ever more present. Way back then, the lockup was run by a for-profit out­fit that styled it­self Cor­nell Cos. Inc.—even as the fed­eral gov­ern­ment warned gover­nor af­ter gover­nor about the still per­sis­tent dan­gers of dis­as­ter.

The city of Bryant’s fire depart­ment has ex­pressed con­cern over the lockup for the past few years, but ap­par­ently only for form’s sake. A rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the depart­ment says he’s not over­much con­cerned about the mal­func­tion­ing locks be­cause the area “is limited in com­bustible ma­te­ri­als” and has a sprin­kler sys­tem that “should hope­fully come out in case of a fire.” But hope, while nice to have, is no sub­sti­tute for ac­tion. Or a co­her­ent pol­icy.

Just as Arkansas’ News­pa­per first ex­posed and de­plored this dan­ger­ous state of af­fairs back in 1998, let the record show that we do so again. Since then, this statewide pa­per of record has reg­u­larly re­ported and protested the var­i­ous forms of mis­treat­ment that the teens at the lockup at Alexan­der have been sub­jected to. Just last De­cem­ber, a widely cir­cu­lated video de­picted a guard at­tack­ing a de­fense­less in­mate.

Ac­cord­ing to Rite of Pas­sage, a Ne­vada-based com­pany that runs the youth jail for the state, the guard was fired and the state po­lice no­ti­fied, for all the good it did. But this is scarcely the first time or place that or­ga­ni­za­tion has had a run-in with the law. Back in Fe­bru­ary 2015, at a lockup for ju­ve­niles in ru­ral Ne­vada, a group of teens staged a riot us­ing what­ever im­promptu weapons they could find or fab­ri­cate, and set fire to two build­ings there, in­jur­ing a cou­ple of staffers. Be­fore a civil law­suit stem­ming from the fire could be set­tled last year, charges and counter-charges flew like snowflakes in a Rocky Moun­tain win­ter storm.

Alas, this same old story is likely to con­tinue un­til who­ever is in charge of Arkansas’ lock­ups for teenage of­fend­ers, if any­body is, gets a grip and ex­er­cises some de­gree of con­trol over a prob­lem that has proven be­yond the state’s con­trol for all too long.

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