The state’s largest youth lockup reported more violence last year than in any of the previous six years.
During 2014, the Arkansas Juvenile Assessment and Treatment Center near Alexander reported 832 violent acts, an increase of 25 percent from the 664 reported in 2013, according to data obtained by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
Violent acts include assaults, fights and self-harming behavior.
Data through the first six months of this year show that the center continues to struggle with a high number of children harming themselves.
In one case, a discrepancy in documents provided to a boy’s mother raises questions about whether some violence isn’t being reported to the state as required.
The contractor that operates the facility for the state says it made several changes aimed at reducing violence at the lockup near the end of last year.
The company also noted that the monthly average of assaults and fights through the first six months of the year is lower than in past years.
“I think we are starting to see the fruits of our labor,” said Brian Neupaver, vice president of operations for the Tampa, Fla.-based firm.
G4S Youth Services has operated the lockup since 2007 under a contract that pays the company about $10 million per year. The contract expires in June.
Arkansas Division of Youth Services Director Marcus Devine said “any increase” in violence is concerning, but he believes that better documenting is partly why more violent acts are being reported.
“We are troubled by any instance of self-harm or assault or fights,” said Devine, who became the division’s director in March.
“All of those things concern us. The question is how do we measure those? And when we deal with G4S, we wanted to have more information as opposed to less. We wanted to get as full of a picture as possible,” he said.
Neupaver also noted that he believes the high amount of self-harming behavior is a reflection of the complex mental health conditions that many of the incarcerated youths suffer from. He doesn’t think it’s an indication of a problem with the center’s treatment program.
But an outside monitoring group, Disability Rights Arkansas, has conducted several unannounced visits and says it has not seen much improvement at the lockup.
Child advocates who study the Arkansas juvenile justice system say the amount of violence at the facility is unacceptable.
The 2014 data provide the latest reminder that the lockup is “inherently dangerous,” said juvenile justice consultant Pat Arthur.
“We know that large juvenile prisons like Alexander do more harm to children than good,” she said.
“They have known that in Arkansas for a long time. The place should have been closed a long time ago, and keeping it open will only continue to put these youth at an unreasonable risk of harm.”
‘Warehouse for kids’
Devine said last week that he plans to roll out proposals later this year that he hopes will change the way the state uses secure confinement facilities like the Alexander lockup.
The lockup confines about 100 youths from across the state on a sprawling campus surrounded by razor wire near Alexander, about 20 miles southwest of downtown Little Rock. It once held as many as 143 of the state’s most troubled juvenile offenders.
Several people who work in the Arkansas juvenile justice system said last week that they believe lawmakers, Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s administration and the new Youth Justice Reform Board, created by Act 1010 of 2015, should rethink the state’s reliance on the campus.
The Alexander campus has been debated for years and is to be a large part of discussions about proposed changes to the state’s juvenile justice system during the 2017 legislative session.
The violence at the lockup has reignited discussion among child advocates about closing the facility and replacing it with more programs that tailor services to children with behavioral problems closer to their homes.
According to the data, the Alexander lockup accounted for a disproportionate amount of reported violence compared with other, smaller residential-program providers.
The center housed about 21 percent of youths committed to residential centers and programs last year. But the lockup accounted for 63 percent of all fights, assaults and self-harms at such facilities.
The center reported 159 fights, a 31 percent increase from 121 the year before, according to Youth Services Division data obtained under the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act.
Assaults declined slightly: 4 percent, from 327 in 2013 to 315. But the assault figures remained high compared with previous years.
The data indicate that assaults and fights appear to be less frequent through the first part of this year. But the lockup’s reported increase in children harming themselves appears to still be a problem midway through this year.
In 2013, the center reported 216 instances of self-harm. Last year, that figure jumped 66 percent to 358.
Through June 25 of this year, children harmed themselves 176 times, on pace to post numbers similar to 2014.
Tom Masseau, director of Disability Rights Arkansas, said the increase in self-harm behavior is an indication that the treatment programs at the center aren’t working for many youths.
“[The lockup] is just a warehouse for kids. They’re not getting the treatment they need,” he said.
Masseau’s group is federally funded and empowered to enter and monitor facilities that house people with disabilities. It began monitoring the Alexander lockup in June 2014, days after the Democrat-Gazette reported that assaults had nearly doubled at the lockup in 2013.
In August 2014, the group released a scathing report about conditions at the lockup.
The report detailed instances of guards rewarding youths with candy for carrying out assaults on other youths. It cited several “dead spots” on campus where surveillance cameras didn’t record what was happening and a behavioral health program that lacked the psychiatric services to care for the 85 percent of youths who took psychotropic medications.
Since October, Disability Rights Arkansas monitors have visited the Alexander lockup 18 times. Masseau said Youth Services Division officials have been responsive to their concerns in individual cases.
He also noted that youths have not reported any more instances of guards rewarding youths in exchange for assaults on others.
But overall, “it’s really not gotten any better,” Masseau said. “We’re still talking about the same things.”
Attorney Sam Kauffman, who has made several of the visits, said he and other monitors have concluded that many of the youths are staying too long for the crimes they’ve committed.
Many of the children should never have been committed to the lockup in the first place, he said.
“For a lot of these youth, it would be better for them to be treated in the community,” Kauffman said.
For many of the children, the longer they stay, the worse they get, according to advocates who have reviewed files and talked with children housed there.
A senior policy analyst at Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families said research has warned about that for years.
“If a kid is in rehab like that for more than six months, if they haven’t shown any progress, they’re going to start going downhill after that,” Paul Kelly said.
Kelly and Arthur pointed to the case of a girl they interviewed earlier this year at the facility. The girl had been sexually abused by a family member before she was committed to the Youth Services Division for getting into a fight at school, they said.
By the time they interviewed her, she had been at the Alexander lockup for more than a year.
Arthur said it was clear that the girl’s treatment at the Alexander facility did not help her deal with the underlying issues driving her behavior.
Instead, the time in a confined setting only exacerbated the trauma the girl had already endured, Arthur said.
“Some kids need to be locked up and held because they’re dangerous and it’s a matter of public safety, but the large majority of them are not like that,” Kelly said.
Only gotten worse
Erin S. isn’t surprised by the amount of violence at the Alexander lockup.
Her 13-year-old son, W.B., has been at the lockup since September, and she said she’s grown increasingly concerned about her son’s safety the longer he has stayed there.
“The bruises he has are constant,” she said earlier this summer. “There’s not one time that I’ve visited where he hasn’t had bruises.”
Looking for an explanation for W.B.’s injuries, she requested copies of incident reports involving her son. But staff members at the lockup told her that she would have to take legal action to be able to see the records.
Only after she called the Youth Services Division and cited state law — which lists parents and guardians as authorized to obtain the records of their children — did she get the documents.
She shared the reports and other information with the Democrat-Gazette. She also agreed to talk publicly about her son’s experiences at Alexander. The newspaper is not using Erin’s or W.B.’s full names to protect W.B.’s identity as a minor involved in the juvenile court system.
W.B. suffers from several severe mental disabilities. He’s been diagnosed with mood and disruptive behavior disorders, has shown indications of autism and requires anti-psychotic medication, Erin said.
But since W.B. was sent to the Alexander lockup, he’s only gotten worse, she said.
The reports support her account. From October through December, W.B. was involved in two disturbances, including an allegation of sexual misconduct in which he was the victim.
Since January, he’s been involved in at least 22 documented altercations. According to the reports, Erin’s son was involved in five assaults and seven disorderly conducts.
In some of the reports, he’s been the aggressor, involving some instances in which staff members wrote that they physically subdued him. In others, he was the victim of physical violence.
The repeated altercations have led to W.B.’s release date being pushed back, Erin said. Initially set to be released in March, he’s now tentatively scheduled for release in September, she said.
But she’s worried that since his behavior has continued to get worse, it will be pushed back even further, resulting in him staying in a facility that she says is clearly not helping him.
“I understand what they’re saying about how he has to have good behavior, but they’re talking about normal kids. That doesn’t work for special-needs kids like my son,” she said.
Records Erin obtained also indicate that her son may have been involved in more altercations than the reports show.
Forms filled out by staff members to document injuries indicate that W.B. was examined for injuries in an additional 27 “incidents.” The examinations — many noting no “new marks or injuries” — are documented on what’s called “mark sheets.”
Some of the reports indicate that they were filled out for self-harm, fights and physical restraints by staff members. But Erin was not given corresponding reports, including for seven mark sheets that note injuries such as cuts, facial bruising, and swelling and redness on various parts of W.B.’s body.
She said the documents indicate that she’s not being told the full story about what’s happened to W.B., one of the youngest children at the lockup and one of the smallest.
Erin said she also believes that staff members are using too much force when they subdue him. Some of the bruises she’s seen while visiting W.B. resemble adult handprints on his upper arms.
Erin said she’s particularly concerned about 10 reports that detail her son harming himself and threatening suicide.
“I’m not justifying his actions, but [the staff members] are pushing his limits,” she said. “I’m not sure what kind of kid I’m going to get back. He’s going to be in a home the rest of his life.”
Erin said she had hoped that the Alexander center would have specialized care aimed at helping her son, and she’s tried to help staff members control her son’s behavior. She’s also encouraged them to put W.B. back on a medication that was effective before he was committed to the state.
So far, she said, no one has listened.
In response to questions last week, G4S said it would look into the discrepancy in the records turned over to Erin. But Neupaver said he was not aware of any problems with the lockup’s incident reporting.
Devine and other Youth Services Division leaders said they couldn’t discuss the specifics of W.B.’s case because of state confidentiality laws.
But after viewing copies of the documents that Erin was given, the division’s internal investigator said agency policy requires incident reports to document the type of conduct mentioned on the mark sheets.
Investigator April Hannah said she would look into whether that occurred.
Devine said he never wants parents to feel that they’re not being kept apprised of their children’s treatment, and he wanted to meet with Erin about her son.
“We are interested in making sure that moms and dads have a full picture of what’s going on with their children when they’re with us,” he said.
Child advocates said last week that they plan to push for more changes in light of the increase in violence at the Alexander lockup.
Kelly and Arthur said that they will continue urging the state to turn away from large facilities in favor of smaller programs closer to the children’s homes.
Arthur said she has asked the Youth Services Division to put together a plan for how it would shut down the Alexander lockup.
Masseau said his monitors continue their work at the lockup and he hopes the state will make significant changes soon.
“What it’s going to take is putting aside the preconceived notions of how we are delivering services in the state and get outside the box. Because what we’re doing is not working,” said Masseau, who is one of 21 people the governor appointed to the Youth Justice Reform Board.
Neupaver disagreed. G4S has added clinicians, changed its approach to discipline and has seen the culture at the lockup improve over the past several months, he said.
Devine, also a reform board member, said his staff continues to work on reducing violence at the Alexander lockup.
From what he’s seen since March, they are succeeding, he said.
More surveillance cameras will be installed soon, and the division expects to hire a youth advocate who will be stationed at the lockup.
Division staff members have been examining the care provided at the lockup and looking for ways to reduce violence, he said.
They also are developing a pilot program to increase mental health services at the facility.
Devine said he will be interested to see the numbers in January, when the more stringent reporting process has been in place for a full year.
“We do have a difficult population in some ways, but it is a population we signed on for. This is what we do. It’s not an excuse to say the population is difficult,” the Youth Services director said.
He acknowledged that the Youth Services Division and the Alexander lockup continue to get children committed to their custody who shouldn’t be there.
Addressing those youths’ needs, keeping them out of secure facilities and in programs in their own communities will be the aim of proposals he plans to present to the Youth Justice Reform Board at the end of September.
“I think we still have to have secure confinement for those most serious offenders. … We will have to have it even if we don’t really like having it,” Devine said. “But I would like us to change the system so that we don’t have kids … in the most secure confinement who don’t belong there.”