A disaster waiting to happen
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.