Escapes bring call for reform

November 09, 1997

Escapes bring call for reform


Staff Writer

Kimberlee Smith was alone each of the three times she was attacked by her teenaged prisoners at the Washington County Juvenile Detention Center.

Calmly, Smith recounts the attacks, each more horrifying the last. The Williamsport resident describes being punched, shoved and knocked unconscious. She said the attacks - especially the last one, which occurred exactly two years ago Sunday - have permanently impacted her.

"This last incident of two years ago has really devastated my life. I still have not recovered from that," said Smith, 44, who is on leave from the state Department of Juvenile Justice.


Officials from the union that represents the department's employees point to Smith's experiences and others like them as evidence that the state is not doing enough to protect its employees and nearby residents.

Five escapes in the last five years have prompted the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees to call for reforms at the facility, which is on North Jonathan Street Hagerstown.

"This is not just an isolated incident. We see it as a pattern," said Matthew Riley, president of AFSCME Local 3167.

"You never know who's going to be going in there."

Brian P. McDonnell, a field representative for the union, said state officials have rebuffed requests for better security.

"Traditionally, after something like this happens, management takes short-term steps," he said. "We weren't asking for the moon. We were asking for reasonable things."

Essentially, McDonnell said the union's position boils down to two requests: a hard commitment that youth supervisors will never be alone at the facility and better training for employees.

Marsha Koger, a spokeswoman for the department, said officials have taken a number of steps to improve security at the facility. Among them:

* Adding staff to provide double coverage seven days a week at all times.

* Installing a video camera and recorder for better sight supervision.

* Installing enhanced security doors on each room.

* Purchasing security beds and attaching them to the walls in each room. This allows up to nine youths to be secured, officials said.

* Changing procedures to provide a better flow of youths in the facility.

* Changing rules to limit the number of juveniles allowed out of their rooms to two at a time.

Training has been improved, too, Koger said. She said staff members have a combined 40 years of experience.

"We shared that information with (union officials). We have been responsive," she said.

Koger said the real problem is the facility itself, an aging, outdated building left over from the old county jail that used to be there.

Past promises

McDonnell said the union agrees the building badly needs to be replaced and has pledged support in lobbying the state legislature for a new facility. But he said the union has heard promises for better security in the past.

"In the past, they have done that. But it would go away after a month," he said. "We wanted a commitment."

McDonnell pointed to a memo the department issued one day after two youths jumped and beat a youth counselor at the facility in August 1996. The memo said the staff-to-youth ratio would be one to two.

However, when a female guard was grabbed from behind and choked by juvenile at the center last August, she was alone.

"The only thing that's been consistent is assaults on staff and escapes," Riley said. "How many of our members are going to have to get beaten up?"

But Koger insisted the commitment to double coverage at all times is real.

"The changes that we have made are permanent," she said.

Tales of brutality

The escapes themselves demonstrate the changing nature of juvenile offenders, union officials said. Teenagers are committing more serious crimes and the holdover facility's guards are facing more danger, Riley said.

State law forbids juveniles from being jailed with adult prisoners. Youths are held at the Hagerstown holdover facility for a short time. Those who must be held in a secure facility long-term are sent to the Alfred D. Noyes Children's Center in Rockville, Md.

The state, meanwhile, has struggled to cope with an explosion in youth crime. A rapid increase during the first five years of this decade has led to juvenile detention centers in Maryland operating at 40 percent over capacity, according to state statistics.

Smith said she has seen an enormous change. When she was attacked in 1992, she said, a 6-foot, 4-inch 18-year-old asked to go to the bathroom. When she opened the door, she said her 5-foot-3 frame was no match.

"He attacked me. He beat me pretty bad," she said.

The youth took her keys, money and purse and ran out the door. Smith said she asked for double coverage during the shift but was denied it.

The most recent attack was even worse, Smith said. Derrell Frisby punched her in the face with such force that she fell unconscious.

"This kid came at me. He beat me on the head," she said. "He knocked me unconscious. He took my keys and ran out the door."

The attack left a 1 1/2-inch scar on Smith's forehead and legally blind in her left eye. More harmful, she said, was the damage to her psyche. She expressed frustration that youths who escape are not punished severely enough and that the state has not heeded warnings from the staff.

"There's no prevention. They always wait until after the fact to do something," Smith said.

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