A private company will take over Arkansas' youth prisons in May under a $15.8 million, one-year contract, state officials announced Wednesday.
Nevada-based Rite of Passage submitted the winning bid to take over management of state-run juvenile lockups in Harrisburg, Lewisville, Dermott and Mansfield that have been overseen by the Department of Human Services since early 2017.
The firm beat out one competitor, Youth Opportunity Investments LLC of Carmel, Ind. -- the very company that almost scored a $160 million, multiyear contract to run the facilities three years ago.
Legislators didn't approve that contract in late 2016, and Gov. Asa Hutchinson ordered the Human Services Department to take over management of the youth prisons -- to avoid a government shutdown, he said. In 2018, department officials said the facilities would return to private management this year.
If Rite of Passage's selection stands, then it would operate all of Arkansas' youth prisons and be responsible for housing, educating and treating as many as 300 children in state custody who have been adjudicated as delinquent. The company can renew its contract in one-year increments until 2026, at $15.8 million annually.
Rite of Passage already runs the state's largest juvenile correctional facility, the 120-bed Arkansas Juvenile Assessment and Treatment Center near Alexander. It began managing that center in 2016 under a $34.1 million, three-year contract.
Arkansas' youth prisons have been the focus of criticism for more than a decade from watchdogs who cited inadequate behavioral health treatment, sexual assault and substandard facilities. Federal investigators have cited similar problems.
Instances of abuse and neglect have continued in the past two years, according to Disability Rights Arkansas, a nonprofit with federal authority to monitor the juvenile prisons.
State officials previously said that returning the facilities to private control, under a single provider, will ensure that youths receive consistent and quality services, no matter where they're jailed, and will help them reintegrate in their communities after their release.
Rite of Passage's new contract is more expensive than those of previous years.
The company's proposal raises the daily bed rate of the youth lockups to $235, state procurement records show. Youth Opportunity's proposal was $236 per day.
Before the state takeover in January 2017, the Youth Services Division paid two Arkansas nonprofits that managed the sites about $145 a day -- for nearly a decade.
Officials reviewing the proposals said it was in the "best interest of the state" to go with Rite of Passage, according to procurement documents. Reviewers gave Rite of Passage an averaged score of 570 and Youth Opportunity a 534.
Rite of Passage earned higher marks in the categories of education, safety and "general information," which weighs a provider's experience working in juvenile justice, its philosophies regarding rehabilitation and how staff members track and measure youths' outcomes.
Child advocates expressed concern about the state's decision to go with Rite of Passage, as well as the Youth Services Division's move to return the lockups to private control.
"This privatization contract raises grave concerns about the implications for the basic rights, bodily integrity, education, and rehabilitation of our most vulnerable youth," said Amy Lafont, a Little Rock attorney who works with families and children entrenched in the juvenile justice system.
Lafont also cited concerns with Rite of Passage's history.
Lafont recently represented a teenager who was struck by guards at the Alexander facility in December 2016, months after Rite of Passage took over.
Garland County juvenile-court filings allege the staff attempted to cover up the incident by placing the teen in solitary confinement for several days and falsifying paperwork.
The state police investigated the incident, which was caught on video surveillance, and the guard was fired, court records show.
In November 2018, a former Alexander facility guard was investigated in the repeated sexual assault of a teenager there.
Bryant Police Department reports show that the 17-year-old victim included details about the abuse in 12 filled journals, dating to January 2018. The journals were found in his living quarters by workers, who then notified authorities.
Disability Rights Arkansas Executive Director Tom Masseau said he believed that Rite of Passage addressed some of his group's concerns through training, but that "anytime control of a facility is awarded to a new provider, there is cause for concern related to the delivery of services and supports to the youth."
With one provider running all Arkansas youth prisons, the "burden of accountability" to ensure Rite of Passage is following the contract will fall on the Youth Services Division, Masseau said.
Both Lafont and Masseau said they hoped the spending increase would direct better services and programs to incarcerated youths.
Rite of Passage's attorney was not available for immediate comment.
The contract bolsters case management, therapy and family engagement requirements. According to bid solicitation documents, Rite of Passage must:
• Create vocational-technical programs at each facility.
• Implement evidence-based programs designed to reduce recidivism.
• Use restorative justice and trauma-informed interventions.
• Develop regular family events and contact families at least weekly.
• Ensure at least 90 percent of youths are ready for release within their prescribed sentences and try to keep stays, when possible, under six months -- a time frame that research shows usually works best.
The contract also calls for therapists to be supervised by licensed psychiatrists, for their caseloads not to exceed 16, and for them to lead at least weekly individual and group sessions. Facilities must have two case managers, and their individual caseload can't go over 16. Case managers will attend court hearings involving the youths they oversee, according to the contract.
Amy Webb, a Human Services Department spokesman, declined to comment about the new contract, stating: "I can't make any comments because we are in the procurement protest period."
Youth Opportunity has three days to notify state officials if it plans to protest the decision, according to state law. The company must then submit a detailed protest within two weeks.
Youth Opportunity representatives weren't available for comment at the time of publication.
A Section on 02/28/2019
Print Headline: Firm picked to run Arkansas youth-prison sites