It’s the sort of thing the Red Cross documented at Abu Ghraib prison or in so-called “black sites”—secret prisons run by the CIA where terror suspects were tortured by various means that don’t necessarily create blood: the slam against a wall, the choke, the bending and twisting of arms and fingers, forcing inmates to sleep on floors, the verbal abuse and humiliation, the denial of rights to see a lawyer.
This wasn’t happening in a black site or in Iraq. According to a federal class action suit filed Friday in Fort Lauderdale, it was happening—and may still be happening—in one of Florida’s 25 juvenile detention centers run under authority of the Department of Juvenile Justice. It was happening to children, one of whom, the suit alleges, was raped by a prison staffer who continued supervising children after the victim alleged the first rape. The staffer allegedly raped the 15-year-old boy again. The boy, who subsequently tried to commit suicide three times according to the suit, including by drinking bleach, was released to his mother a week before the suit was filed.
The Southern Poverty Law Center filed the suit against Youth Services International, the private company that runs Thompson Academy in Broward County and several other similar facilities in the state, at a cost of $74 million to taxpayers. The company runs eight facilities in Florida, including two in St. Augustine, where children from Flagler County may be incarcerated: St. Johns Juvenile Correctional Facility, a maximum-security juvenile prison, and St. Johns Youth Academy, on the same campus, though that one is rated a medium-security prison for youths.
Thompson Academy officials say the suit is “unsubstantiated.” The Florida’s Department of Juvenile Justice, whose rules for documenting any incident that “has the potential to disrupt the normal operations of the facility or program [or] may bring attention to the department” were apparently not followed, is investigating. So is the Department of Children and Families are investigating.
The youth prison is a medium-security facility for 154 males age 13 to 18 who are incarcerated there from six to nine months for such things as repeated property crimes, but not violent crimes against individuals. The prison is run by Youth Services International, a company “marred by egregious conditions in its conditions in other states,” according to the suit, which documents the death of one inmate in the company’s custody at a facility in Iowa , along with a case of repeated sexual abuse in another, a rape by an inmate’s cell-mate in another, a guilty plea from a counselor who sexually exploited a female inmate in yet another, and so on.
The law center filed the suit against the Broward County facility after visiting the prison with a Florida attorney beginning on Sept. 8, meeting with several inmates—then being barred from meeting with them again. Facility staff met with several of the youths after their encounters with the law center’s representative and, according to the suit, intimidated the youths into signing statements that said they would no longer be willing to meet with law center representatives. One of the boys refused to sign and was later abused physically and verbally, according to the court records.
Another boy, referred to in the suit by the initials D.B., a 15-year-old, later retracted his statement waiving his right to speak with an attorney, and told law center representatives of two rapes. The boy claims the first rape took place on march 10 when he was alone in the laundry room. The suit claims a youth counselor by the name of Presley “entered the laundry room and grabbed his own crotch and asked ‘are you going to suck it?’ D.B. refused, but defendant Presley continued to demand that he perform oral sex. Eventually, defendant Presley pulled out his penis and forced D.B. to perform oral sex. When defendant Presley ejaculated, D.B. spit out defendant Presley’s semen into a rag. Defendant Presley then left the laundry room.”
D.B. turned over the rag with the evidence to other staffers. He was told not to mention the incident, though an internal an investigator told him he’d “passed” a test when he accurately described his alleged attacker’s penis. Despite that, D.B. was assigned the same counselor when he was taken to a medical appointment outside the prison. There, in a bathroom, “Presley escorted D.B. to the bathroom, removed D.B’s handcuffs, and followed D.B. into the bathroom. Defendant Presley stood behind D.B. and asked him “are you going to do it?” D.B. asked what he meant, and Defendant Pressley responded: “suck it.” Defendant Presley then pulled out his penis and said that he would not let D.B. out of the bathroom. D.B. then performed nonconsensual oral sex on Defendant Presley for a second time.”
A judge released the boy to his mother on Oct. 1.
The suit also charges that staffers at the prison walled or attempted to wall individual inmates by throwing them against the wall. On Sept. 27, the boy who refused to sign a waiver saying he would not speak to a law center lawyer, referred to as D.L. in the suit, was physically assaulted in a day room at the prison, “without provocation,” the lawsuit states, by a youth counselor referred to as Augustine. “Augustine instructed D.L. to stand up and then called D.L. a ‘fuck nigger,’” the suit states. “When D.L. responded that defendant Augustine could not call him that, defendant Augustine continued to direct abusive, racial epithets toward D.L.
The Department of Juvenile Justice operates 25 juvenile detention centers in 24 counties with a total of 2,007 beds. Youth Services International information says that “Visitation is an important component of a youth’s stay in detention and is encouraged and supported by detention staff. Parents, grandparents, and legal guardians are approved visitors. Others may only visit if so ordered by the court or specifically approved by the Superintendent or designee.” The company’s website also says that “Legal counsel, Probation, law enforcement, clergy and other professionals may visit youth outside of regularly established visitation times as necessary.”
But the company and the Department of Juvenile Justice, the suit claims, have developed means of circumventing inmates’ right to see legal representation that isn’t strictly their own, so that when a human rights organization visits, inmates may be kept from speaking to those visitors. Inmates are also not allowed to have confidential telephone conversations with their lawyers.
“Youth confined at Thompson Academy describe the facility as a frightening and violent place where they are subject to abusive and unconstitutional conditions,” the suit sums up, “included repeated physical and sexual abuse perpetrated by guards, which is ignored and encouraged through the negligence of staff, supervisors, the facility administrator, and officials at DJJ. YSI ensures its ability to abuse children with impunity by denying youth access to lawyers who could help protect them.”