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Director fired after escapes at Arkansas youth jail

4 fleeings reported at center this year

By Amanda Claire Curcio

This article was originally published August 13, 2017 at 3:42 a.m. Updated August 13, 2017 at 3:42 a.m.

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-on-one 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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