The Atlanta Journal and Constitution, November 14, 1997

Alleged assault of youth spurs suit: Overcrowding at issue: Three older attackers said to be sharing a room: with 11-year-old victim.
Larry Hartstein, Staff Writer

A federal lawsuit claiming an 11-year-old boy was beaten and sexually assaulted by three older boys at the Gwinnett Regional Youth Detention Center has again drawn attention to overcrowding at the Lawrenceville facility.

The lawsuit, filed last month in Fulton County and moved to federal district court in Atlanta last week, says the three attackers were supposed to be isolated because of discipline problems, but were put in the victim's 8-by-8 room for lack of space.

Center officials declined to comment on the lawsuit, which stems from an alleged March 1996 incident. The assistant attorney general defending the suit was out of town and did not return a phone message.

However, a Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice spokeswoman said the state's 20 youth detention centers "provide safe and secure environments" despite housing many more youths than they were built for.

Spokeswoman Jaci Vickers said staffing has increased along with the number of juvenile offenders admitted to the detention centers, which are designed for short-term incarceration.

Gwinnett's had 55 youths as of Wednesday, 25 more than its original capacity. Statewide, the centers had 1,166 offenders, 440 above capacity. The state is trying to relieve crowding by building more long-term juvenile prisons and expanding the short-term jails, Vickers said. The department's 1998 budget request seeks 20 more beds for the Lawrenceville facility.

"When you look at all of our institutions you'll see they're a bit over their built capacity, but you also recognize that we provide the youth there with mattress and linen and make the accommodations as required for housing them," Vickers said. "Our primary job is to protect the public."

The U.S. Justice Department is investigating conditions at 11 detention centers and prisons for children, including the one in Lawrenceville. It has not issued a report.

On March 1, 1996, according to the lawsuit, the 11-year-old boy was beaten and forced to perform oral sex on his three attackers. The suit states that the three older boys were incarcerated for charges such as armed robbery, aggravated assault and burglary, while the victim was detained "because he was an unruly child."

Copyright 1997, The Atlanta Journal and Constitution, All rights reserved.

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