The Atlanta Journal and Constitution, February 2, 1998

Feds condemn juvenile justice abuses: Georgia detention centers rated grim to 'harmful': U.S. blisters state's juvenile justice: Young offenders abused in detention, probe finds, By Ron Martz

Final Metro Georgia's juvenile detention facilities are unconstitutional, dangerous, abusive and overcrowded, and provide inadequate health care and education, according to a scathing report by the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice after a year-long investigation.

"Our investigation identified a pattern of egregious conditions violating the federal rights of youths in the Georgia juvenile facilities we toured," reads a Feb. 13 cover letter to Gov. Zell Miller from Bill Lann Lee, acting assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division.

State officials have until April 2 to correct the numerous deficiencies cited in the 37-page report, or they will face a federal lawsuit that possibly could lead to federal control of the facilities.

"This is an absolutely devastating report. It's an embarrassment to the state," said Rick McDevitt, president for the Georgia Alliance for Children.

The report paints a grim picture, describing bare cement cells without toilets that reek of urine. It also provides graphic examples of abuse of young people at some facilities.

"In Fulton County," the report states, "staff routinely place youths on high level suicide watch as punishment, stripping them of their clothes (sometimes providing paper gowns, sometimes leaving the youths naked), removing their mattresses and confining them alone in their rooms for days without access to education or exercise.

"Youths who refuse to remove their clothes are forcibly stripped, and male staff are sometimes involved in stripping female residents."

The report also criticizes the practice of sending mentally ill or very young offenders to boot camps.

"It is our expert's opinion --- and the opinion of many of the boot camp staff and mental health professionals with whom we spoke --- that the paramilitary boot camp model is not only ineffective, but harmful to such youths," the report states.

Jaci Vickers, spokeswoman for the state Department of Children and Youth Services, which is responsible for incarcerating most youthful offenders, said her office had not seen the report yet and declined to comment.

The Justice Department's investigation began last March at 11 detention centers and prisons for children around the state following reports of abuse and overcrowding.

Of particular interest to the investigators were six of the state' s 22 short-term Regional Youth Detention centers and five of the eight facilities used for longer periods of incarceration.

Violations at the facilities are wide-ranging, according to the report, and include:

Failure to provide adequate mental health care to mentally ill youths throughout the system.

Overcrowded and unsafe conditions in the regional detention centers.

Abusive disciplinary practices, particularly in the boot camps, including physical abuse by staff and the abusive use of mechanical and chemical restraints on mentally ill youths.

Inadequate education and rehabilitative services.

Inadequate medical care in certain areas.

"Because of these conditions," the report stated, "many youths have suffered grievous harm, such as being injured or hospitalized due to fights with other youths or physical abuse by staff; mentally ill youths have degenerated in the state's care; youths have suffered needless pain and continued illness from undiagnosed or inadequately treated medical conditions; and youths' educations have been damaged by grossly substandard DJJ (Department of Juvenile Justice) educational programs."

The Alliance for Children's McDevitt, a longtime critic of the state' s juvenile justice system, said: "We now have a report on the horrific nightmare these kids are actually subjected to. The thing is outrageous. I've known that, but it's the first time it's been documented."

The Justice Department report specifies 16 minimum remedial measures that the state must implement to satisfy federal guidelines, including protecting youths from staff abuse, providing more staff and better training, improving the facilities in which the youths are detained and providing adequate mental health services.

"Hopefully (the report) will have some effect on changing how we do business in this state," said McDevitt.

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