Arkansas youth lockups' woes downplayed; problems cited by activists fixed or exaggerated, state says

Posted: January 31, 2018 at 4:30 a.m.

State officials say a watchdog group's concerns about deteriorated conditions at two youth lockups have been mostly addressed or were exaggerated in the first place.

The nonprofit Disability Rights Arkansas wrote in a Jan. 19 letter that Arkansas teenagers confined at Dermott's state-run Juvenile Correctional Facility and Juvenile Treatment Center slept in frigid, unheated rooms; got by on shortages of supplies such as shampoo; and showered in moldy stalls. The group operates under federal authority to monitor the rights of disabled youths.

Broken kitchen equipment remained unrepaired, youths lacked winter coats as temperatures dipped below freezing and food shipments were stalled for weeks, the group's monitors also found during its Dec. 20 visit of the facilities.

But in a letter sent to the group Monday, the state Youth Services Division contests most allegations of mistreatment.

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Photos by Disability Rights Arkansas

"We agree these issues are important, and maintaining the health, safety and welfare of all residents in our custody is always our priority," wrote Betty Guhman, the division's director.

"We are committed to addressing any real problems that persist, but some of the assertions made in your letter were incorrect."

Guhman said staff already worked to fix most issues cited in the Disability Rights Arkansas letter.

Clothes dryers have already been replaced, she noted. The youths have winter coats now. Kitchen appliances would be repaired or replaced within two weeks.

Showers would be re-tiled and the grout would be re-sealed soon, Guhman wrote.

Other claims, including that youths went without heat, were addressed as soon as they had been reported, she added.

The director also outlined changes intended to mitigate future problems.

This includes the termination of the lockup's director -- salaried at $40,339, state records show -- and creating new facility management teams.

The agency also will hold weekly meetings with procurement officials to review outstanding orders and "emergency needs." Division staff members and facility directors will survey infrastructure and other orders in other regular meetings, she wrote.

If conditions do not improve, Disability Rights Arkansas will consider private litigation or seek further action from the U.S. Department of Justice, said Tom Masseau, the group's executive director.

Masseau remains skeptical about the division's response.

"It's an endless cycle we see with these facilities," he said. "My hope is that they'll improve, but past experience, from four years, is that we do the same cycle. It's frustrating -- broken promises."

The nonprofit has been monitoring the state's seven youth lockups for nearly four years and routinely sends its findings to state officials without seeing desired change, he said.

Last January, the group notified state officials about "ongoing daily violations of the rights of youths committed" at the facilities, including the absence of required on-site education and treatment programs.

Masseau believes it is time for lawmakers to consider closing the Dermott lockups and focus on community-based programs that lower the youth incarceration rate.

Other juvenile justice advocates believe the Youth Services Division will bring about positive change, even though they're concerned about Disability Rights' findings.

"We are at a critical point in juvenile justice," said Circuit Judge Troy Braswell. "We are seeing significant advancements throughout the state as judges, providers and advocacy groups work diligently to improve the process and outcomes."

Some improvements have also stemmed from the youth agency, Braswell said.

Since the division took over the facilities at the direction of the governor in January of 2017, officials now "better understand the day-to-day operations and identify ways to improve delivery of services," he said.

"I am concerned with the allegations," he added. "After a review of Director Guhman's response, I am also satisfied that [the Division of Youth Services] was already in the process of addressing some of these issues before the letter was written and that Director Guhman continues to work hard to rectify other listed deficiencies... [the Division of Youth Services] must continue to monitor and review its policies to ensure that these instances are less frequent."

Metro on 01/31/2018