Wayne County empties troubled juvenile jail, sends 120 youths to former adult lockup

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Conditions at Wayne County’s juvenile jail have so deteriorated that officials have emptied the downtown building, moving its roughly 120 young residents into a vacant adult jail because of safety concerns caused by understaffing and overcrowding.

The county’s choice to abandon the juvenile facility for the adult jail 10 minutes north comes after an ongoing Free Press investigation into complaints youths have been confined to their rooms for long periods and deprived of basic care, including daily showers, recreation time and medication.

Wayne County Executive Warren Evans’ staff acknowledged that the move, approved by the state Monday, won’t fix the staffing crisis, but will improve safety by thwarting youths who have figured out how to break out of their secure rooms in the juvenile facility, a chronic problem in recent months.

“It’ll help us, you know, with kids being able to pop locks, get out of the room. It’ll help us secure the kids better,” said Tiffani Jackson, a spokeswoman for Evans. “It’s a more controlled environment, given that we have … double our population.”

Officials have said the juvenile facility could “comfortably” operate with 80. Staff were assaulted twice just this month while providing youth daily services, Jackson said.

Records show problems have been festering at the facility, also called the JDF, since at least last year. Former staffers and a county spokeswoman told the Free Press that in past years, before the current problems, juveniles regularly were let out for recreation, schooling and other activities.

The Free Press has obtained records that depict the problems at the juvenile jail. Photos obtained under the state Freedom of Information Act reveal how one youth was held for 18 days in a room strewn with debris. The photos provide the first public glimpse of the challenges inside the facility and document how workers have struggled with providing basic care.

Wayne County juvenile jail abuses


A state investigator wrote in a report that she knew they’d come to the source of a strong urine and body odor as soon as a staffer unlocked the youth's door in the mental health unit late last year.

Inside, the boy sat on the floor atop a tattered mattress ripped at the seams. He was wrapped in a dark blue blanket facing his stainless steel toilet, wearing only three-day-old boxers and a pair of soiled socks.

The boy told the investigator he hadn’t showered or brushed his teeth in three days. And there was no record of whether he had been out of confinement, the state found.

The boy’s room was scattered with food containers, trash and a worn copy of the Holy Bible.

More:Juvenile jail in 'disaster' mode: Complaints of youths locked in rooms for days

More:Whitmer creates group to seek solutions to shortage of juvenile treatment beds

Juvenile justice advocates question how the temporary move to the William Dickerson Detention Facility in Hamtramck, while a new juvenile facility is built, will address the complaints of living conditions.

“How does this improve the inhumane conditions that the young people face?” said Jason Smith, executive director of the Michigan Center for Youth Justice. He added that, now, “judges know that they are sending kids to a facility that was never designed to hold children. …

“The entire (juvenile) system is supposed to be therapeutic and rehabilitative. And you are sending them to a facility that, you know, was never designed to be.”

Lawyers argue for release

The dysfunction at the JDF also has been apparent in juvenile court hearings the Free Press observed this month.

Defense attorneys cited the facility’s conditions when asking for the release of their young clients.

At least six juveniles in cases the Free Press observed weren't even able to get out of their rooms at the facility to participate as they routinely do in virtual court hearings over Zoom. Instead the video showed them peering through the long, thin windows of their locked doors.

Gwendolyne Carson, an attorney with the Michigan Children’s Law Center, said during proceedings Tuesday that the conditions at the JDF “are very bad.” Two youths she represented who appeared from behind their doors hadn’t showered in days, she said.

During a hearing for one of the juveniles, Carson noted: “They can’t even bring him out of his cell for this hearing.”

In the other case, a teen was facing school threat-related charges and was being held on a bond that required 10% of $5,000 — $500 — to be posted, but his mother was unable to do so. Carson told the referee her client “maintains his innocence” and also addressed the JDF conditions, saying the youth told her he was allowed out of his room only to see a therapist or doctor.

“He’s in his room all day,” she said. Carson also said the youth, who had been at the facility since late September, hadn’t “showered in at least three days.”

In normal times, youths in such facilities would typically get about 12 hours a day outside their cells, one expert previously told the Free Press.

The referee gave the youth a personal bond, allowing him to be released without money being posted.

During another court hearing earlier this month, a JDF staffer said a youth was being held behind the door for his video court appearance for safety reasons because he had escaped his room by popping a lock that morning and then let other juveniles out.

“Took a few hours to get him and his crew back in” their rooms, the JDF staffer told officials in court.

Referee Daniel McGuire ordered the teen be released to his mother, describing the youth’s actions at the JDF as “acting out behavior.”

There was not always an explanation for why juveniles were appearing in court on Zoom from behind the doors of their rooms.

McGuire said it is rare and that youths would typically be brought out of their rooms for hearings. He said it can be tough to communicate through the closed doors during the virtual hearings.

“I don’t like to do anything through doors if I don’t have to, but the amount of staffing, it becomes a safety concern over there and it becomes its own vicious circle,” he said. “Sometimes these kids are acting out because they’ve been there that long. You know and then they go, ‘Well we can’t bring them to the hearing because they’re acting out.’ ”

County responds

Wayne County officials said they “were unaware” that youths were appearing in virtual court hearings from behind their room doors and that they are “currently investigating these occurrences.”

In earlier Free Press reports, the county had remained silent on allegations that youths had been confined to their rooms for days at a time. But for the first time, in a statement last week to the Free Press, they denied lengthy youth confinements.

“According to JDF leadership, staffing shortages have made it difficult to allow youth out of their rooms for extended periods of time, however, youth are not being confined to their rooms for days or weeks at a time,” wrote Jackson, the county spokeswoman, saying the information came directly from Melissa Fernandez, who, as the director for Juvenile and Youth Services, runs the JDF.

The county’s statement came after the Free Press sought responses to detailed allegations made by a recently released youth about how he was treated during his time at the facility. The 18-year-old said he was routinely confined to his room for days and, at one point, recalled being in his room for a stretch of two weeks.

His account is consistent with others detailed in a Free Press investigation published last month that found there had been growing allegations that youths were being kept in their rooms for long periods of time and not always receiving basic care, like daily showers and time out for recreation. Employees and families described the troubling conditions at the JDF, which has been operating under relaxed staffing and lockdown rules — with the state’s approval — for months because of the worker shortage.

A mother, Dinah Campbell, said her son, who was released in May after being detained for seven months, told her he was kept in his room for more than a week at times because there were too few staffers.

Jackson said that, before the pandemic, officials at the JDF “were able to use the rooms mainly for sleeping, not for primary security. School was class-based, recreation was generally available, and students were able to remain in common areas on their units.”

A statewide shortage of beds at residential facilities has meant lengthier stays at the juvenile jail for youths who have been ordered into treatment. Jackson said, as of Tuesday, 65 juveniles were still awaiting placements.

More:Michigan has nowhere to send vulnerable kids as placement crisis builds

18-day seclusion

Licensing rules say seclusion can be used only under certain circumstances and can’t last more than three days, a state spokesman said.

The state required the JDF to put a corrective action plan in place after the investigation found the youth last year who had been locked in his room for 18 days.

The county said it has complied with state requirements since the investigation and “there have been no additional findings regarding noncompliance,” Jackson said.

She also added the county is aggressively recruiting new employees to improve conditions at the new facility.

“Dickerson will help with a lot of the safety concerns but it’s not going to help to address the staffing issue, of course,” Jackson said. “We conducted a holistic review of JDF and one of the biggest concerns, of course, was the safety of not just our … juvenile detention specialists but also of the kids. So, Dickerson addresses that immediate safety issue.”

Shortly after releasing the photos of the youth’s room to the Free Press earlier this month, the state health department sent an unsolicited statement saying Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s newly announced Juvenile Residential Facilities Advisory Committee will address conditions in facilities like the JDF "to ensure that situations like this don’t happen moving forward,” wrote Bob Wheaton, a spokesman for the state health department.

In the 18-day seclusion case, the youth told the state investigator he was confined to his room after he and other juveniles refused to go back into their bedrooms, hung on stairwell railings, kicked a television and ran around the unit’s living area. The investigator wrote in her report that a supervisor said the youth was being secluded until he had “7 days of good behavior.”

Keeping kids in their rooms

A significant breakout in May was the first to get public attention through news media reports, drawing more scrutiny of the conditions inside the JDF.

That month, facility staff needed the police to help after 18 residents broke out of their rooms, destroyed property and fought each other. An internal county investigation found one boy may have popped a lock and got ahold of a staffer’s set of keys.

“It wasn’t planned. It literally happened that night,” an 18-year-old, who a county investigation named as a ringleader of the breakout, told the Free Press. “We planned it like 10 minutes, 20 minutes before.”

Frustrations boiled over, he said, after staffers backed off of a promise to let them out for a break that morning, in their unit called the Malcolm X pod. He said they would routinely be confined for days and he remembered a two-week stint of confinement.

“I mean, if you were in your room for that long … how would you feel?” he said.

The Detroit resident, who was at the facility for eight months, was released in July.

The Free Press met him following a virtual court hearing earlier this month and later interviewed him at his grandmother’s house. The newspaper isn’t naming the young man because of his juvenile status.

The youth admitted participating but said he didn’t cause damage.

“We barely came out. We barely got showers. We barely got phone calls. They was more worried about staff breaks than us getting any type of rec,” he said. “We couldn’t even get an hour out of our rooms. We was in the room all day, there wasn’t no staff on the pods.”

That’s how the youth were able to get out, he said — there was no one watching.

“That’s how it was so easy,” he said.

County officials wouldn’t comment on the May incident, saying the investigation is ongoing.

He said he struggled with the prolonged confinement, in a room often filled with trash from eating every meal inside. At one point, sewage flooded his room and remained overnight.

He would write rap lyrics when he was allowed a pencil or read a book to distract himself. His room had a single window to the outside but it was frosted over.

County officials have not answered Free Press questions on the size of the youths’ rooms at JDF and have declined requests to allow reporters in to tour the facility or Dickerson. They did say youths are able to dispose of their trash every day and have no knowledge of sewage overflows.

Experts say routine isolation for youths outside of sleeping hours can be dangerous to their mental health and recommend the practice last no more than four hours daily, according to standards from the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative.

“It was depressing,” the 18-year-old said, adding there were times he couldn’t eat or sleep. “I was just staring at the wall all day or had my head glued on the window looking out at the staff.”

Contact Christine MacDonald: cmacdonald@freepress.com or 313-418-2149. Follow her on Twitter: @cmacfreep. Contact Gina Kaufman: gkaufman@freepress.com Follow her on Twitter: @ReporterGina.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Wayne County empties troubled juvenile jail