Di­rec­tor of ju­ve­nile lockup fired af­ter es­capes

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

State of­fi­cials fired the di­rec­tor of a Har­ris­burg ju­ve­nile jail on Aug. 4, four days af­ter the short-lived es­cape of two teenage boys who had been de­tained there.

The fir­ing is the state Di­vi­sion of Youth Ser­vices’ re­ac­tion to a string of es­capes at the 34-bed fa­cil­ity this year. Only two of four made the news.

Der­win Sims — who worked at the Har­ris­burg lockup be­tween 2000 and 2016, left and was re­hired by the state in Fe­bru­ary — will be re­placed by April Hines, the lockup’s as­sis­tant di­rec­tor. Sims’ salary was $41,159, ac­cord­ing to Arkansas trea­sury records. Sims de­clined to com­ment about his fir­ing.

Lo­cal sher­iff ’s deputies found the lat­est run­aways — who had fled dur­ing a tran­si­tion be­tween af­ter­noon classes — around 11:30 p.m. July 31, about eight hours af­ter they were re­ported ab­sent with­out leave. They were re­turned to the lockup with­out in­ci­dent.

Ini­tially, po­lice re­ported that the boys would face es­cape charges, but the 2nd Ju­di­cial Cir­cuit pros­e­cut­ing at­tor­ney’s of­fice later con­firmed that no such case files have been pre­sented for re­view.

Youth Ser­vices Di­vi­sion of­fi­cials im­me­di­ately be­gan plans to re­lo­cate the boys — one had been in cus­tody on a felony of­fense — to the Arkansas Ju­ve­nile Assess­ment and Treat­ment Cen­ter, a more se­cure lockup near Alexan­der.

Brandi Hin­kle, a spokesman for the De­part­ment of Hu­man Ser­vices, said it is com­mon for the agency to

move es­capees to more se­cure fa­cil­i­ties, such as the Alexan­der unit or ju­ve­nile cor­rec­tional sites in Der­mott. The teens’ length of stay and “treat­ment plan” will be ad­justed ac­cord­ingly, Hin­kle added.

The lat­est es­cape marked the fourth suc­cess­ful such in­ci­dent by boys held at the Har­ris­burg Ju­ve­nile Treat­ment Cen­ter since Jan­uary.

In March, three boys fled the lockup, and au­thor­i­ties fi­nally found them af­ter more than a week.

The es­capes are a marked in­crease from pre­vi­ous years. Be­tween 2012 and 2016, there was only one es­cape at the un­fenced Har­ris­burg fa­cil­ity, ac­cord­ing to Hu­man Ser­vices De­part­ment records.

Else­where in the state, the only other es­cape this year of a ju­ve­nile oc­curred at the Alexan­der lockup in July. It in­volved two teens, one of whom was not found for six days. Rite of Pas­sage, a pri­vate Nevada-based firm, has been run­ning that fa­cil­ity since last Au­gust.

In the past, two Mans­field ju­ve­nile cor­rec­tional fa­cil­i­ties had four es­capes each in a given year, 2014 and 2015, the records show. Ev­ery ju­ve­nile treat­ment cen­ter has had at least one es­cape since 2012.

Har­ris­burg Po­lice Chief

Gary Hefner told the Arkansas Demo­crat-Gazette that the Har­ris­burg lockup “needed to tighten its se­cu­rity.” On-duty of­fi­cers and “ex­tra help” were called in to comb the area for the miss­ing teens, he said.

The Di­vi­sion of Youth Ser­vices does not plan to in­crease phys­i­cal se­cu­rity there yet, though.

“Peo­ple who are sup­posed to be di­rectly su­per­vis­ing those com­ings and go­ings are not as at­ten­tive as they could be,” Hin­kle said. “It is too early to tell if in­stalling a fence would be a so­lu­tion.”

Hin­kle said of­fi­cials are re­view­ing surveil­lance footage and in­ter­view­ing work­ers be­fore de­cid­ing what to do next.

The Har­ris­burg fa­cil­ity’s staff will re­ceive ad­di­tional train­ing — “talk­ing about move­ment, how to be vig­i­lant, how to have con­trol,” she said.

A ju­ve­nile treat­ment cen­ter in Colt, in St. Fran­cis County, also does not have a fence; no es­capes have been re­ported there in the past two years.


Chang­ing the cul­ture of the lock­ups can re­duce unau­tho­rized ab­sences, said ju­ve­nile pub­lic de­fender Dorcy Corbin.

“You need an en­vi­ron­ment con­ducive to re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion, not pun­ish­ment,” Corbin said.

To Corbin, that means youths hav­ing more one-onone in­ter­ac­tions with ther­a­pists

and teach­ers, and not “be­ing locked up in con­fined spa­ces for long pe­ri­ods of time.”

“What child would want to stay in that kind of place?”

Un­der­staffing, high turnover, sub­stan­dard liv­ing con­di­tions, and a lack of ac­cess to ther­apy and qual­ity ed­u­ca­tional pro­grams have been of­ten-cited prob­lems with many of the seven state-run youth lock­ups, ac­cord­ing to re­ports by Dis­abil­ity Rights Arkansas, a fed­er­ally em­pow­ered watch­dog group.

At least five of the 14 county ju­ve­nile de­ten­tion cen­ters have been cited by the group for sim­i­lar prob­lems.

Paul Kelly, a for­mer Arkansas Ad­vo­cates for Chil­dren and Fam­i­lies pol­icy an­a­lyst who once led pro­grams sim­i­lar to those at the Har­ris­burg fa­cil­ity, agreed that es­capes can stem from “kids not get­ting what they need” while in cus­tody.

But Kelly said other fac­tors also are at play.

“Some kids, run­ning away is al­ways what they do — when things go wrong, if they have a con­flict,” he said. “It all de­pends on what is go­ing on with the kid, in his head and in real life.”

Un­til Jan­uary, the Har­ris­burg fa­cil­ity and the other state-owned ju­ve­nile de­ten­tion cen­ters had been un­der man­age­ment by two non­profit groups for nearly 20 years.

But law­mak­ers stalled a new $160 mil­lion con­tract to run the sites, a deal in­tended for an In­di­ana-based provider called Youth Op­por­tu­nity In­vest­ments LLC. In re­sponse, Gov. Asa Hutchin­son or­dered the Youth Ser­vices Di­vi­sion, which falls un­der the Hu­man Ser­vices De­part­ment’s over­sight, to take over the fa­cil­i­ties in Colt, Der­mott, Lewisville, Mans­field and Har­ris­burg.

Dur­ing a tour of the Colt Ju­ve­nile Treat­ment Cen­ter in the spring, Betty Guh­man, the Youth Ser­vices Di­vi­sion di­rec­tor, said that chang­ing the cul­ture at cer­tain fa­cil­i­ties was a top pri­or­ity.

“It’s all about con­sis­tency, com­ing up with a cer­tain level of ser­vice and mak­ing sure there is a high qual­ity of staff at all of our fa­cil­i­ties,” she said. “We want it to be stan­dard­ized, but in a pro­duc­tive way.”

It is un­clear whether the di­vi­sion will again at­tempt to out­source man­age­ment of the

youth jails. Hutchin­son orig­i­nally stated that the takeover would last six months — from Jan­uary to June of this year.

When asked about the fu­ture of the lock­ups, Guh­man and top agency of­fi­cials say they are “gath­er­ing facts” and learn­ing more about the oper­a­tions be­fore mak­ing any de­ci­sions. The agency may try to “stream­line” ser­vices of­fered at the fa­cil­i­ties to free up other cen­ters, en­abling them to run new pro­grams de­signed to help cer­tain types of ju­ve­nile of­fend­ers, Guh­man said.

In the mean­time, in meet­ings held by the gov­er­nor-ap­pointed Youth Jus­tice Re­form Board, Guh­man rou­tinely re­it­er­ates her com­mit­ment to im­prov­ing lock­ups.

She and her staff point to Colt — with a cam­pus re­sem­bling an aus­tere sum­mer camp, with log-cabin-style build­ings en­cir­cled by tall pines — as an ex­am­ple. Talks are un­der­way to repli­cate a lot of what is hap­pen­ing at Colt at other sites.

There, teenagers wear new navy-blue, col­lared shirts — a wel­come re­place­ment for the con­spic­u­ous yel­low T-shirts — as they sit qui­etly in class. Lessons un­der­way in­clude a dis­cus­sion of the Ruby Bridges story and a re­view of the prop­er­ties of quadri­lat­er­als. Com­put­ers nearby are used for on­line cour­ses to help youths catch up on miss­ing high school cred­its.

Hours ear­lier, the youths went out­side for phys­i­cal ex­er­cise. Break­fast — scram­bled eggs, sausage, bis­cuits — was hot and fill­ing. Charts taped along the dor­mi­tory walls out­line as­signed chores, laun­dry times and be­hav­ioral ex­pec­ta­tions, and show the youths’ progress in reach­ing cer­tain goals.

“There is just a sense of pride or pur­pose at Colt that is not hap­pen­ing at the other places,” Guh­man said. “Yet.”

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