BATESVILLE -- After years of abuse and neglect of young prisoners and a cover-up of wrongdoing by staff resulting in federal criminal charges, the Independence County juvenile jail will be no more.
The White River Regional Juvenile Detention Center will stop incarcerating kids by this summer, county Quorum Court members learned Monday night.
Pending final state approval from the Department of Human Services, county officials will finish converting the facility to a treatment center that focuses on short- and long-term therapeutic residential care and a program for girls who have survived sex trafficking.
Jonathan Pickering, facility director, described the changes as a natural next step for the center, which has already undergone several improvements since he was hired in 2015. He and staff already have added several programs to help locked-up kids, including group and individual therapy sessions, foster dog training, mural painting and gardening projects.
"The truth is, juvenile detention just doesn't work," Pickering told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in an earlier interview.
A 2018 facility report shows that serious incidents involving youths at the Batesville facility -- including assaults, verbal threats and escape attempts -- had gone down significantly. In 2012, the county reported 1,283 serious incidents occurred, but it documented only 73 serious incidents in 2018.
Pickering attributes the dramatic drop to changes in culture and administrative philosophy, namely the use of positive reinforcement rather than punishment.
Kids are now less likely to re-offend and end up back in juvenile jail, according to the 2018 facility report. In 2012, the recidivism rate was 91%, compared to 18% in 2018.
At Monday's Quorum Court meeting, County Judge Terry Griffin thanked Pickering for his efforts.
"What was going on out there -- we don't want that to ever happen again," Griffin said.
Other Quorum Court members didn't discuss Pickering's information or ask any questions about the planned changes.
In 2017, two former White River Regional supervisors confessed in federal court to assaulting and needlessly punishing detained youths and conspiring with other workers to cover up their abuses by falsifying use-of-force documents.
Peggy Kendrick, 45, and Dennis Fuller, 41, were in charge of the facility when they worked together to "injure, oppress, threaten and intimidate juveniles" between 2012 and 2014, according to U.S. District Court records. This included pepper spraying compliant youths who didn't pose a threat, including a 16-year-old girl being held at the facility for truancy and a 14-year-old asleep in his bunk.
Youths doused in pepper spray often were shut in their cells without going through decontamination, according to court records, and a guard also grabbed a youth from his bed and began to choke him.
U.S. District Judge James Moody Jr. sentenced Kendrick to seven years in prison last month and Fuller to three years in March.
Former White River jailer Jason Benton, 44, was sentenced to 2½ years in federal prison in March after pleading guilty last year to violating youths' rights and falsifying documents.
Two other White River jailers were charged but were acquitted by a jury in December. Their lawyers argued that the guards were simply following orders.
As a treatment center, the White River facility will offer kids at least three individual and three group sessions of therapy every week, Pickering said. Families can participate in therapy, and facility staff will provide or arrange for transportation if needed, he said.
Dorcy Corbin, a longtime Pulaski County juvenile public defender, expressed cautious optimism about the changes. Corbin said she's spoken to kids who were locked up at the Batesville facility years ago and that many reported living in poor conditions and not receiving required services, including education.
Corbin said it will be important to track results from these new programs and said she hoped county officials would focus on helping kids instead of generating income.
State records show that Independence County received at least $900,000 since fiscal 2012 for locking up kids committed by circuit judges to the state Division of Youth Services.
"We know that locking up children is not the way to help kids succeed," Corbin said. "These are our children. ... We owe it to them to do what we can to help them achieve their full potential."
Metro on 05/07/2019