During this last week of September, it was reported that the private company that operates Summit View (which opened last year as Nevada's first secure youth prison and first privately run juvenile facility last June) is pulling out of its contract “two years before it expires.
The previous week the Las Vegas Sun had carried a most informative report on what was going wrong “which provides an object lesson to administrators and staff.
What went wrong
A Las Vegas Sun investigation has found that longstanding and pervasive management problems helped lead to an inmate uprising in June at Summit View Youth Correctional Center. Complaints documented since the opening of the youth prison on June 1, 2000, range from filthy sheets and gang graffiti to sex, drug use and suicide attempts.
In a review of nearly 3,000 pages of internal memos and reports, and in interviews with prison and state employees, parents and the inmates' defense attorneys, the Sun found a pattern of problems at the facility on Range Road north of Nellis Air Force Base, including:
Sexual and physical abuse by staff members against inmates.
At least two instances in which drugs were brought into the facility, resulting in two employees losing their jobs. One resigned after refusing to take a drug test and the other was fired following allegations that he allowed inmates to beat up another inmate for “snitching" on them about drug use.
Numerous suicide attempts, ranging from glass cleaner overdoses to self-mutilation.
A lack of security that resulted in numerous escapes, including one by an inmate who hitchhiked to Carson City.
A failure to provide staff with adequate training. Among the topics staff members said were not sufficiently covered were gang awareness, inmate con games, professional demeanor, special needs inmates, cell searches, sexual misconduct awareness and cultural issues.
A turnover rate so high “by November 80 percent of the original staff had left “that the prison failed to meet staff-to-inmate ratio requirements on 18 days in that month. In addition, the facility is on its fifth administrator “the equivalent of a warden “since it opened.
A lack of family living and substance-abuse counseling programs, despite a contractual obligation to provide them.
YSI officials did not respond to repeated requests for comment, both directly and through their attorney, former Sen. Richard Bryan. Such problems are evidence of poor management, said Deborah Vargas, a policy analyst for the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, a Washington, D.C., and San Francisco-based nonprofit group that seeks to “reduce society's reliance on the use of incarceration."
And poorly run youth prisons, Vargas said, reap consequences that can be felt far beyond their razor-wire fences. Unlike adult prisons, where the emphasis is on punishment, juvenile facilities are designed to rehabilitate young offenders, she said. “Kids are still developing, and you can still change the way in which they function in society, if you have the correct institutional programming in place," Vargas said.
Vargas, who has bachelor's degrees in adolescent psychology and criminal justice, said if the inmates have suffered physical and sexual abuse, as the reports allege, the chances are greater that they will return to crime when released.
Security and drug use
Many of the problems at Summit View were described in reports by Sue Bobby, a state employee hired to ensure YSI was fulfilling its contractual obligation.
In the prison's first four months, 248 reports were written about fights, or rules that were broken, Bobby noted in an October 2000 memo. Of those, 136 were characterized as “critical," and 16 involved staff members.
Two months after Summit View opened, two employees sent anonymous letters to its administrator begging for changes. They both cited a lack of security, inconsistent punishments and favoritism.
"Are you aware of the dysfunctional facility that is being run here? What is it going to take for the administration to wake up and see that there is a major potential for disaster here?" one employee wrote.
It wasn't until the prison's first anniversary that the problems at Summit View came to the public's attention.
On June 1, 20 inmates scaled a fence and hoisted each other up to the roof, where for hours they refused to come down, throwing pieces of an air conditioning unit at Metro Police officers below.
The youths later told their defense attorneys they were upset about the facility's conditions.
Then two former Summit View employees were arrested
Aug. 29 on charges of having sex with two inmates, ages 17 and 18.
But the documents obtained by the Sun show those events were only a fraction of the reported problems. The documents are replete with complaints about a lack of security and incidents that occurred as a result.
One in August 2000, which generated more than 40 pages of reports, illlustrates the problem.
Members of the graveyard shift arrived at work to
find 17 inmates out of their cells and emergency doors open. The swing
shift crew had let the youths out to clean an inmate-caused flood, then
lost control of the situation, the graveyard workers said.
When the graveyard crew tried to place the inmates back in their cells so they could do a head count, the offenders became disruptive, and the swing shift did nothing to help.
"When you do stuff like that in front of the residents, it makes us look like we have no authority," one employee complained in a report. “There has to be order before there can be discipline, and it seems like this place is being run like a day camp for juvenile boys."
A swing shift employee, in a memo explaining the flooding, said he believed the inmates who helped clean up the mess should be congratulated. The facility administrator gave the crew a pizza party the following night.
The reports also provide details of five escapes or attempted escapes and allude to at least three others.
During one in January, three inmates noticed that one of two perimeter fences was open and tried to escape. Two of the teens were caught in the razor wire atop the inner fence, which was locked.
The third was caught across the street in a scrap yard.
Another inmate climbed a fence in the recreation
yard and hitchhiked to Carson City before being caught several days
The youth had been punished two days before for trying to escape. He told Carson City officials he was reaching into a vent in the ceiling not to escape, but to hide some beer.
When asked where he got the beer, the youth said, “Let's just say that some of the staff are really cool."
Marijuana, methamphetamine and cocaine use were common in the prison, Kristopher Wood, one of the inmates charged in the uprising, said. The staff, he said, just “looked another way."
One youth, Wood said, overdosed in his cell after using a needle he stole from the nurse's station to shoot up methamphetamine that had been shipped to him in the mail. No report confirmed the incident.
Abuse and filth
Substance abuse and lax security were only part of the problems.
The internal reports note that three staff members were suspended within a month in the spring, after allegations that they were physically abusing teens. A fourth was accused of slamming an inmate's head against a wall several times.
The Sun was not given subsequent reports about the incidents, and Willie Smith, who, as a deputy administrator of the state's Division of Child and Family Services, oversees juvenile corrections, said she did not know what ultimately happened to the staff members.
During that spring, a staff member was suspended for not stopping a fight between two inmates, and another staff member was fired after a report alleged he allowed three youths into a cell to beat up another youth.
The problems at Summit View also included fire, safety and health code violations.
According to Bobby's reports, inspections in May and June revealed dirty cells that needed to be painted and broken mirrors, windows and doors. In addition, gang and Satanic symbols and words were carved into many windows and walls.
In a February report Bobby wrote that no one could remember the last time the bed linens had been washed “perhaps five months. She noted that one inmate inherited a pillow with dried blood on it.
In a May report “less than a year after the facility's opening “Bobby wrote that all but two toilets were rusted and all of the toilet brushes were missing.
Another report noted that a fire drill wasn't held until June, and the prison failed, because it took five minutes to evacuate and one resident turned up missing.
Lack of experience, training
Some of those interviewed attributed the atmosphere at Summit View to young, inexperienced staff who were not trained properly.
Wood, the inmate who took part in the uprising, and others familiar with the prison said many of the employees were between 20 and 25 years old.
Summit View requires only a high school diploma of its guards, called “youth workers," according to the state, and pays $10 to $12 an hour, according to a former guard.
At the Spring Mountain Youth Camp, a minimum security facility run by the county, young offenders are supervised by juvenile probation officers, who have bachelor's degrees and at least four years' experience and make between $18 and $28 an hour to start, Ray Visconti, assistant director of human resources for Clark County, said.
If a youth prison is going to use an inexperienced staff, training is crucial, according to Geno Napalucci-Persichetti, director of the Ohio Department of Youth Services, which oversees juvenile corrections and juvenile parolees in that state.
In Ohio, juvenile correctional officers receive seven weeks of training before they can begin work in the facility, Napalucci-Persichetti said. They must also have at least two years of college and some experience working with youths.
"You can't bring people in and start off with 'We'll train you on the job,' “ Napalucci-Persichetti said. “It doesn't make sense. That's built-in failure, especially when you're talking about people who may have no prior experience in corrections."
A former guard, who asked not to be identified for fear of retribution, told the Sun that much of the training at Summit View consisted of watching videotapes, which many employees slept through.
"Training, to put it in the simplest terms, was a farce," the man said. “It was a joke. They had no set lesson plan to say 'On Day One, this is what we'll learn and on Day 30 this is what we'll learn.' “
The worker said he quit because he had complained so much about people breaking the rules, he was threatened and began to fear for his life. One of his repeated complaints, he said, was about fellow employees falsifying records to reflect that the nightly head counts had been taken.
"I was checking cell doors at night. I was trying to maintain the security of the facility and making administrators aware of what was happening there," the former guard said. “Everyone turned a blind eye to this, and staff turned against me to the point of it was a hazard for me to go to work. I was in peril."
The lack of training was especially acute “and potentially dangerous “when it came to gang awareness.
Reports show that parole officers who investigated an alleged murder plot at Summit View believed it could easily have been carried out because of staff ignorance. The parole officers were looking into reports of a car lurking around the facility and discovered a plot by gang members to drive into the facility to shoot a rival gang member.
The officers offered to provide gang awareness classes, noting staff members apparently didn't recognize members, were unable to interpret gang signs, had allowed contraband to be passed to inmates and had failed to pick up on gang intelligence being passed in letters.
Smith, who oversees both parole and probation and juvenile detention, ordered the officers to stop their investigation through a memo many perceived as an attempt to bury the facility's dirty laundry. Smith said that's not the case. She asked the parole officers to halt, she said, because they took the investigation to the point of endangering their lives. Metro Police were asked to take over, and should have been called in earlier, she added.
Sgt. Don Sutton, of Metro's Gang Crime Section, said members of his unit spoke with the suspects and “read them the riot act." Sutton said no further incidents were reported.
Many correctional facilities have high employee turnover rates, but the 80 percent rate at Summit View is considerably higher than most, and became a factor in the poor training. An annual turnover rate of 10 percent is generally considered acceptable, Napalucci-Persichetti, the Ohio corrections official, said.
The recurring problem with staff-to-inmate ratios resulted in $41,500 in fines being assessed against YSI.
Staffing got so low, memos show, that officials ignored the facility's operating procedures and allowed female staffers to supervise the young men alone.
"Females have been observed walking in the administration hallway after hours with a single male resident, youth work crews are assigned to sole female staff for supervision," a memo reads. “On Feb. 28 one female staff was left to supervise 27 male youth in the dining room by herself for over an hour."
A lack of supervision is believed to be behind a number of incidents in which youths were injured.
Documents refer to several instances in which inmates tried to harm themselves or commit suicide. The youths used everything from eyeglasses, shoelaces and pencils to glass cleaner. In one incident three youths drank mouthwash, toothpaste, shampoo and lip balm, saying they wanted to die. On another occasion, paramedics weren't able to get to a teen who drank glass cleaner because staff members couldn't open the door to a secured vehicle entrance.
No inmates were seriously injured. All of them were examined by a facility nurse, documents show, and in some instances they were treated at a local hospital and released.
To get more workers on the job more quickly, state officials agreed in December to temporarily waive half of the 160 hours of training called for in Summit View's contract “further exacerbating the problems, some critics say.
David Doi, executive director for the Coalition for
Juvenile Justice in Washington, D.C., found it upsetting that state
officials would waive training for any length of time. The coalition is
a national nonprofit group of juvenile advocates appointed by governors. “If you're not properly training staff, that's a prescription for
trouble," he said. “You don't send teachers into school to teach with
just two years of college, and you don't send lawyers to practice law
with just a year and a half of law school."
YSI officials promised the additional training would be completed within 10 weeks. By May they could not demonstrate that the training had been done.
Smith, who was a youth parole officer and licensed substance abuse counselor for adults and youths before joining the state in 1999, said the inmates were not affected by the delay in training, because topics that fell by the wayside involved such things as corporate policy.
The difficulty in getting and keeping qualified employees extended beyond the rank-and-file guards.
Summit View inmates have yet to receive adequate substance abuse counseling, Smith said, because the prison has not had a qualified substance abuse counselor. Summit View's original substance abuse counselor did not have the proper credentials, Smith said. That woman left the facility in the spring and was replaced by a certified substance abuse counselor, who quit shortly after her hire.
Wood, who is at the Clark County Detention Center awaiting trial in the uprising, said he had looked forward to the treatment initially promised by Summit View. He's no angel, Wood readily admits, but he hoped if he got help for his drug addiction, training in daily living skills and vocational education, he could turn his life around. Instead, Wood said, he spent more than eight months pushing a mop or broom.
He was not enrolled in classes, because he already had his high school diploma. He never met a mental health counselor, and the facility's uncertified substance abuse counselor just handed him Narcotics Anonymous fliers, he said.
He spoke to his caseworker only once or twice, Wood said.
"It seemed like he had bigger and better things to do every time he walked by me and I asked if I could talk to him," Wood said. “When I'd see him in the office, he'd be playing Solitaire on the computer."
The state's Smith said she knew there were problems at Summit View.
"Some staff haven't done the right things," Smith said. “Does the state care they haven't? You betcha we do. I believe the YSI management cares too. But obviously some more supervision training or supervision tactics need to be in place to watch over people, and if they were in place, (we need to know) 'Where was the breakdown?' “
People need to realize, Smith said, that any new facility is going to have problems, especially when new programs are being implemented by new staff.
"Whether the programs were state operated with an all-state staff or privately operated and private corporation-staffed, if you've got a startup, a new operation, there are going to be some types of issues."
This report is by Kim Smith. Sun reporter Ed Koch contributed to this story.
Acknowledgements to the Las Vegas Sun.
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