Alexander lockup fails children, report asserts
November 5, 2006
An advocacy group that has been monitoring Alexander Youth Services Center for months said Saturday that Arkansas isn’t meeting the mental health, education and special education needs of the children at the troubled facility as required by the U. S. Department of Justice and state law.
Problems at the center are systemic, said Dana McClain, a senior attorney with the Disability Rights Center, a federally funded Little Rock nonprofit that assists disabled Arkansans.
“We don’t think this is rehabilitation, and state law says it is supposed to be [for youthful offenders ]. I think it’s punishment,” she said. “I feel like these children are being set up to go to adult prison.”
At some point, she said, the youthful offenders at the lockup will get out, “and you hope when they do they’ve got a better shot at being productive members of society.”
A draft copy of the group’s lengthy report detailing “failures” at the center in Saline County was given to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on Saturday — a day after the state unexpectedly ended its contract with Cornell Cos. Inc., a Houston company that ran the center for the past five years. An internal investigation found that employees were “inappropriately” drugging youthful offenders with psychotropic drugs to control bad behavior.
The state was paying Cornell about $ 10 million annually.
News about the forced medications, sometimes given without a doctor’s order, prompted some legislators and others to renew calls Friday to shut down the state’s largest lockup for youthful offenders.
The Disability Rights Center report, which outlines about 50 problems, is expected to be released publicly later this week.
McClain said her group will meet with the Department of Health and Human Services on Monday to discuss the findings. Monitors for Disability Rights have been making unannounced visits, as allowed by federal statute, to the center at least three times a month since March.
“Under the contract these are things Cornell was responsible for providing,” McClain said. “I hope [Health and Human Services ] doesn’t just address that one issue [about the medication ]. This is a good time to do more because they are starting anew.”
The agency has been responsive so far, McClain noted. Cornell, however, didn’t address some of the major concerns that Mc-Clain said she repeatedly talked to company employees about.
Julie Munsell, Health and Human Services spokesman, said her agency has received a copy of the report but she declined to comment about the details until it is published and officials meet with the group’s representatives. Health and Human Services is the umbrella agency over the Youth Services Division, which now operates the youth lockup.
In general, Munsell said, the state has made many strides since entering into a settlement agreement with the Department of Justice in March 2003 after a federal investigation found civil rights violations in the delivery of mental-health care, education, fire safety and freedom of religious expression at the center.
Still, more work is needed, particularly with the center’s education system, she acknowledged.
“We do still struggle with education issues at Alexander, and we’ve been working with the Department of Education to improve those issues,” she said. “We will always strive to get to an ideal setting, but it will take us time to get there.”
The Justice Department hasn’t visited the center since January.
Over the years, the youths at the Alexander center have complained that employees kicked, slapped and even threatened them with death. Others killed themselves.
One boy, known for days to be suicidal, was able to hang himself a few years ago with a bedsheet. An investigation later found that his guard didn’t check on him.
Another boy hanged himself in the same cell just a few months later — just as the state hired Cornell to take over the facility and fix its problems.
And last year, a 17-year-old girl at the center died of blood clots in her lungs. She complained to nurses and supervisors that she was ill, but they didn’t believe her, even as she lay dying, according to a subsequent investigation.
Munsell said her agency plans to work with the Disability Rights Center to address the group’s concerns. The Department of Justice couldn’t be reached for comment Saturday. During visits to the lockup, McClain said monitors found: Youths watching Harry Potter movies during science class on more than one occasion.
A student sleeping on his keyboard, even though a teacher was sitting at a desk in the same classroom.
No teacher-led reading program, even though at least 50 percent of the youthful offenders at the center have difficulties reading, and in some cases, can’t read at all. (An ombudsman who regularly visits the center said the youths are supposed to use a computer-based reading program at their own pace, but he has seen no evidence that such a system has