The state's Youth Services Division announced Friday that it will begin sending young offenders back to a juvenile lockup in Danville because the facility has addressed several problems discovered last fall, including that guards used restraints and pepper spray as punishment.
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Youth Services Director Marcus Devine said he made the decision to once again use the Yell County Juvenile Detention Center after visiting the lockup this week and seeing how it has transformed.
"There's been a significant leadership change at the facility and new policies and procedures that they've put in place. They're in full compliance with our [agreement]," Devine said, noting that the division will continue weekly monitoring of the lockup for now.
"We do feel like they're in a better position with our training and monitoring to take our children again," Devine said.
The division's decision to resume using the Yell County lockup came almost three months after the division pulled youths in state custody from the facility in response to the findings of an Arkansas Democrat-Gazette investigation.
Over the past several months, Yell County Sheriff Bill Gilkey has retrained the lockup's staff, removed pepper spray and mechanical restraints and ordered the staff to use verbal behavior modification techniques and other means of de-escalating emotional outbursts without resorting to force or restraints.
Gilkey also installed former Yell County Sheriff Mike May as the lockup's director in mid-February. May has more than 20 years of law enforcement experience and most recently worked for the Arkansas Department of Correction.
On Friday, May said he's committed to making sure the center continues to "meet and exceed" the Youth Services Division's expectations.
"I just think that it's a totally different facility than it was before, and the good thing about it is all the staff is on board," he said.
May said the changes have made it easier to encourage youths to control their behavior than any punitive use of restraints or pepper spray ever did.
"We're revamping the thought process and going more with a reward-type system. If they don't do what they're supposed to do, then the punishment is they don't get the reward," May said.
Before the decision to stop sending children to the lockup last fall, the state paid the 24-bed lockup about $1.2 million over the past four years to house an average of 21 youths per month. The lockup housed those teenagers -- some of whom had committed serious crimes and were awaiting beds in state residential treatment centers -- along with other children locked up for misbehaving at school.
In a series of articles, the Democrat-Gazette documented more than 100 cases in which law enforcement officials, lockup leaders and guards punished youths with pepper spray and mechanical restraints, and in one case, both.
The punishments were routinely employed for actions such as yelling, screaming, name-calling, banging on tables and doors, and throwing soft objects such as socks and toilet paper, according to incident reports obtained under the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act.
The facility also punished youths by putting them for hours in a device known as The Wrap, an immobilization restraint in which the teens had their wrists cuffed, legs bound with thick straps and chest strapped with a harness connected to their feet.
The use of the device was discovered in September by the state's juvenile-justice ombudsman, Scott Tanner, who alerted the Youth Services Division.
In an interview, Tanner said he's been pleased to see the lockup work closely with the division to improve the treatment at the lockup.
"I think the conditions in Yell County have improved significantly, and DYS has made their decision. Once there are DYS youth involved, I will have an opportunity to re-engage that system and monitor," Tanner said. "I think we're all on the same page in protecting and providing for kids."
Tanner said he hopes the division will continue to examine how it uses juvenile detention centers in addition to assessing the conditions of the facilities. Tanner noted that the division should look at cutting down on the amount of time youths sit in county centers while awaiting placement in state residential treatment centers.
On Friday, May said he also will be paying attention to the amount of time children from across the state are housed at the facility.
"Before I got here, there were times where several of these kids from different parts of the state would be in here for a month, two months, three months and never have a visit," he said. "So all of my staff has been informed that any kid who has been here as much as two weeks without a visit, I want to know about it."
In those cases, May said, he's working with churches to get volunteers to visit with those youths.
"If the [churches'] people are tied up, then I will come back on visitation day and sit down and visit with them. I do not want them going without a visit," he said.
In addition to the visitation program, May said he's working to implement personal finance, creative writing, cooking and other life skills classes at the lockup. The sheriff also has volunteered to teach a small-engine repair class, he said.
May said he was drawn to be the lockup's director because of what he learned about at-risk youth from his wife, who worked with foster children for 10 years at the Arkansas Department of Human Services, the agency that oversees the Youth Services Division.
"I know a lot of the home life of these kids, and they haven't had much of a choice in life," he said.
May said his staff will focus on showing youths that they are valued and that they can turn away from the bad choices they've made.
"We have some judges who will disagree with me, but I don't look at this as a punishment facility," he said.
Devine said he met Thursday with May and was pleased with what he heard.
"I think that [May] understands where we are now, and he wants to incorporate this approach to the facility that is consistent with what we want, which is just the protection of the children that we have in his care there," Devine said.
Devine said Yell County officials also have done a better job of filing incident reports and that division monitors will be watching to make sure that continues.
"We are very demanding that the reports be inclusive and be correct," Devine said. "We cannot have a situation where we don't know what's going on."
Devine referred to the division's discovery last year that Yell County and other juvenile detention centers weren't submitting required reports, including dozens obtained by the newspaper that documented punitive use of restraints and pepper spray.
After the newspaper provided the reports to the division, the agency found that at least 20 youths in its custody were punished by guards at the Yell County lockup in ways that violated state juvenile detention standards.
The methods included hogtying, putting a youth in The Wrap for six hours with only two brief breaks, pepper-spraying youths in restraints or using the chemical in response to "mouthing."
While changes have been made at the lockup, a federal investigation continues into a Danville police officer who broke a 13-year-old boy's arm in the lockup in March 2014.
The boy's parents filed a federal lawsuit against the officer and other Yell County officials, alleging a failure to properly train lockup staff members and excessive force on the part of the police officer and a sheriff's deputy.
U.S. District Judge Susan Webber Wright stayed the lawsuit in February after both parties filed a motion requesting the stay until the resolution of a "federal criminal investigation" into "the events that gave rise to this civil matter."
Deb Green, spokesman for the FBI's Little Rock field office, declined Friday to discuss the investigation.
"It would be inappropriate for us to make a comment at this time," Green said.
A phone message left Thursday with state special prosecutor Jason Barrett, who had been investigating the case, wasn't returned by close of business Friday.
Both the Danville police officer, Timothy Spears, and the deputy, Michael Spears, who are brothers, have denied any wrongdoing. Both are no longer employed with the respective law enforcement agencies.
Other Yell County officials, including the sheriff and Danville Police Chief Rick Padgett, have declined to discuss the matter citing the pending litigation.
Metro on 03/28/2015
Print Headline: Youth lockup's fixes earn second chance from state