Youth Detention Centers in Georgia Rife With Problems Says Juvenile Justice Commissioner

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Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice Commissioner Gale Buckner, right, meets with state lawmakers to discuss problems at the state's youth detention centers. Photo: Jim Walls

Low pay, poor training and an unsafe work environment have led to unacceptable turnover among guards at Georgia's youth jails and prisons, Juvenile Justice Commissioner Gale Buckner says.

”By the time we get our juvenile correctional officers trained, they're leaving us,” she said Tuesday. The Department of Juvenile Justice reported a 54 percent turnover rate in 2011, up by nearly one-third over the previous year.

Buckner, in a briefing for Augusta-area legislators, offered no specifics about a criminal probe into the recent fatal beating of a 19-year-old youth at the state’s Augusta Youth Development Campus.

But the former GBI agent addressed a wide range of security issues, including the possible need for a “super-max” facility to house some of the YDC’s most violent youths.

Juvenile justice officials blame a much older, more violent class of young offenders for a wave of riots and disturbances in DJJ facilities last year.

But even among that group, Buckner said, officials have identified and are tracking a small number of “instigators” who cause trouble wherever they are held.

"Every facility they go to, we end up having a group disturbance," Buckner said.

DJJ is considering whether to reassign those toughest offenders to segregated units at one of the five YDCs for boys, officials say. They might also be transferred to a new YDC scheduled to open, pending approval of state funding, in south Fulton County in April.

"They don't need to continue to be housed with 12-year-olds," she said.

The Augusta lawmakers offered their help Tuesday to drum up help from community-based organizations to mentor youths once they’ve left DJJ custody.

“Some of them have no family support when they're released,” Buckner said. “We need some faith-based groups to step up and mentor these youth ... We need these desperately at all of our facilities.”

Some groups that have volunteered their help in the past have become “uncomfortable” about returning to the Augusta campus due to safety issues, she said.

Buckner, who’s visited all of Georgia’s 26 youth jails and prisons in her first two months on the job, said correctional officers too worry about their wellbeing on the job: “They would tell me they didn't feel safe. They didn't feel their superiors on site were supportive of them."

Several Democratic lawmakers expressed particular concern Tuesday about getting pay raises at the Augusta YDC to help attract and retain better candidates.

“She needs the resources to cut that turnover rate,” Rep. Wayne Howard said.

Juvenile correctional officers make a starting salary of only $24,000 a year. They can bump their annual pay up by several thousand dollars just across town at the state Department of Correction's medical prison in Augusta.

Often, those officers have not been trained properly, officials said. DJJ has offered refresher courses just to cover the basics: how to move kids efficiently across campus, how to keep contraband out of the facility; and how to stop youths from smuggling food or eating utensils back to their cells.

Emphasis on training and a few unannounced searches have already paid dividends. “There was much less contraband at that facility last week than there was a month ago,” Buckner said.

Officials are worried even about seemingly innocuous items such as candy or gum, which some youths use as barter to obtain sexual favors or to get others to assault other youths.

Some contraband can be more menacing. Authorities recently found six to eight hidden pieces of fencing that had been sharpened for use as weapons.

Officials have also turned up gang markings in books, letters, even hand-written instructions on how to make and interpret gang signs. Authorities are painting over what Buckner described last week as "a tremendous amount of gang graffiti," she said, and the department's intelligence unit is analyzing the signs of gang activity to determine their significance.

Buckner said her department and the GBI are wrapping up their investigations at Augusta. GBI had 20 agents on the campus starting at 5 a.m. Tuesday to interview staffers one last time about Holder's death and other allegations of misconduct.

Buckner said some YDC workers have admitted having sexual contact with youths in custody, and GBI agents had confirmed similar allegations against others.

Rep. Gloria Frazier cautioned, though, that some YDC workers tell her they're worried they'll face disciplinary action if they admit witnessing or taking part in illegal acts.

"Do you know the staff out there won't talk to the GBI because they're afraid they'll lose their jobs?" Frazier asked.

Buckner encouraged legislators to have staff members call her personally if they’re not comfortable talking to their supervisors. She handed each a business card with her cellphone number scrawled on the back.

Several legislators said they were impressed with Buckner's performance so far.

“I like her energy. I like her vision,” Rep. Quincy Murphy said.

Frazier said she hopes the state’s response to Holder’s death, believed to be the first homicide ever at a DJJ facility, will set the tone for improvements at youth jails and prisons statewide.

"We’re going to use Augusta as a model,” she said, “to make sure that doesn’t happen again.”

 

Photo: Flickr, Michael Pick

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