Teenagers confined to two state-run South Arkansas juvenile lockup facilities lived in unsafe and unsanitary conditions and saw many of their basic needs neglected for much of 2017, an Arkansas Nonprofit News Network investigation has found.
Nine current and former workers at the juvenile facilities, in Dermott, told the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network that youths regularly lacked sufficient hygiene supplies, including soap, shampoo, toothpaste, toothbrushes and laundry detergent throughout 2017. Air-conditioning only worked sporadically in multiple dorms throughout the summer, when the outdoor temperature often approached 100 degrees. The heating units in multiple dorms did not function for weeks in the winter, when temperatures dipped below freezing. During the fall and winter, until Jan. 27, the youngest teenagers confined at the facilities did not have coats.
Current and former staffers also said teenagers frequently were not adequately supervised. Regularly in 2017, the number of staff did not meet the American Correctional Association standard of one direct care staff member to eight youths. On the many days the facilities were understaffed last year, one teenager raped another, several youths attempted suicide and others attempted escape.
The Dermott Juvenile Treatment Center for 13- to 17-year-old boys is one of seven juvenile lockups referred to as treatment centers by the Arkansas Department of Human Services’ Division of Youth Services, which oversees them. As the name suggests, treatment facilities are intended to be rehabilitative rather than punitive. Youths committed to the facilities must complete treatment plans designed by the DYS, rather than time-based sentences. Under state supervision, they are referred to as “clients” rather than “inmates.” The nearby Dermott Juvenile Correctional Facility houses 18- to 21-year-olds who were committed to a treatment center as juveniles but have not yet completed their treatment plans.
Senior DYS staff said that their records did not reflect chronic supply shortages or extended outages of air-conditioning and heating units. But DYS Director Betty Guhman conceded serious problems existed at the Dermott facilities, including a snag in the state’s procurement process that left teenagers at the treatment facility without coats until late January.
“That should never have happened,” Guhman said. More generally, Guhman said, “We realize that some things have slipped between the cracks, and we don’t want that to happen. We want to stay on top of it.”
The systemic breakdowns alleged by staff amount to neglect, said Tom Masseau, executive director of Disability Rights Arkansas, a nonprofit advocacy group that is federally designated to monitor state juvenile lockups. DRA visited the Dermott facilities in December and noted that one dorm in the correctional facility lacked heat, some correctional residents were without jackets and correctional residents had insufficient hygiene supplies. DRA additionally found standing water in a residential building and cafeteria, kitchen equipment in disrepair, dirty and moldy showers and shattered glass in the entryways of two dorms. It detailed its findings in a Jan. 19 letter to Guhman.
Masseau said that if the state held juvenile lockups to the same standards as it does for long-term care facilities for the elderly and developmentally disabled, the lockups would be forced to shut down. He said if the DYS did not improve conditions at the Dermott facilities, DRA would consider filing a lawsuit in federal court.
In January 2017, at Governor Hutchinson’s direction, the DYS took direct control of seven of the state’s eight youth lockups, including the two facilities at Dermott. The lockups had been operated by two nonprofits, South Arkansas Youth Services and Consolidated Youth Services, for over 20 years; SAYS ran the Dermott facilities (SAYS recently filed for bankruptcy; the filing indicates that the FBI and the Arkansas attorney general are investigating the nonprofit). The unexpected takeover order came in response to a political stalemate over the DYS’ decision to switch to a new vendor. Legislators sympathetic to the ousted nonprofits blocked the new vendor’s contract in late 2016, which meant the state would have entered the new year with no one to run the facilities at all. But Hutchinson directed the DYS to assume direct management of the facilities, and, in a matter of days, some 300 staff members at the facilities were converted into state employees. The state had not directly operated any of the treatment centers in more than 20 years.
Shortly after the takeover, Disability Rights Arkansas said the DYS was struggling to maintain day-to-day operations at the lockups. According to a Jan. 26, 2017, letter to Guhman from the nonprofit advocacy group, mental health therapy had all but ceased at the facilities. The Dermott facilities were chronically understaffed and residents were living in what the letter described as “deplorable conditions not conducive to rehabilitation.”
That conditions at the Dermott facility have not improved after a year of state control is a sign that lawmakers need to take a closer look at the juvenile system, Masseau said.
“I think the only way this is going to change is for the legislature to take a stand. We continue to pour money into the division with no increase for infrastructure and buildings are falling apart. There’s no one holding anyone accountable for these issues,” he said.