Earlier this year, a youth at the Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center was assaulted by several other kids: kicked in the face and head multiple times, and hit with a trash can and hygiene container as he was lying defenseless on the floor.
Meanwhile, staff at the facility were delayed in responding to the assault because they were initially provided with the wrong unit location. The targeted youth was transported to the hospital to treat extensive injuries to his face and eye, as well as missing teeth.
In another unprovoked attack, a different youth suffered a serious orbital fracture and started having seizures after he was punched in the face.
Those are just two examples of recent violence at Baltimore’s thinly-staffed downtown juvenile lockup facility, which has had more fighting among the youth who are housed there, continuing problems with contraband and a lack of educational and social programming, according to a report released last week.
Experts on the local juvenile justice system say the conditions at the facility, a maximum-security detention center known colloquially as “Baby Bookings” or “Babies,” are disturbing but not surprising.
The Maryland Department of Juvenile Services, which runs the facility, is dealing with “higher than usual vacancies” that have worsened “chaotic” conditions and depleted programming, the report from the Juvenile Justice Monitoring Unit found. Staffing issues at the detention centers such as low morale, burnout and turnover are “not being acknowledged or adequately addressed by DJS leadership,” according to the report.
As of last week, the population at the facility — which has a capacity of 120 youths — had risen to 82 kids, 46 of whom were charged as adults, said Nick Moroney, head of the Juvenile Justice Monitoring Unit, a state-supported watchdog run out of the Maryland Office of the Attorney General.
But incidents of youth-on-youth violence have grown faster than the rising population, with fights and assaults increasing by about 85% in the second quarter of 2022 compared to that same time frame in the previous year. The average population increased by 74% in that time frame, the report found. The reports assess all youth facilities the Department of Juvenile Services runs and are released quarterly.
Moroney said in an interview that the increase in fights and assaults can be attributed in part to that increase in population, but also how the facility is being run and the level of staff expertise. Less experienced workers lead to looser supervision of kids and more safety and security mistakes, he added.
Then there’s the boredom that stems from a lack of educational and recreational opportunities, a continuing effect of the COVID-19 pandemic that disrupts operations to this day through reduced staffing levels and restrictions on private vendors entering facilities.
“When you have a flood of unfortunate things kicking in at the same time, you’re going to see a bump,” Moroney said. “You’re going to see a big bump.”
Jenny Egan, a juvenile public defender, said that youth who are detained at the facility are sometimes not being brought to court or to speak with their attorneys.
“Multiple times over the last six months, children have not been brought to court even when they are being incarcerated in the same buildings where the hearings are taking place,” Egan said. “We have been given numerous reasons and promised by higher-ups that it will be addressed, but it is an ongoing problem and it happened this week.”
A spokesperson for the Department of Juvenile Services said the department “takes the processing of a youth and their right to speak to attorney seriously.”
“There are times when the processing can be delayed due to factors beyond the department’s control,” the spokesperson said.
In response to the quarterly report’s findings on the downtown detention center, the department pointed to an increase in the overall population at the Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center, which it says has been driven by an increase in youths charged as adults.
“Staff continue to be trained on crisis prevention management and appropriate restraint techniques for the benefit of both youth and staff,” the department said.
In regard to the incident in which staff were delayed when responding to the youth who was jumped, the department conceded that staff “did not respond appropriately.”
“Safety and security training has been provided to all staff and will be ongoing across all shifts,” the department said. “Video review of the incident has been shown to staff to identify staff errors for additional training purposes.”
A ‘prison-like’ environment
The monitoring unit report found that the Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center “continues to operate as a prison-like environment where administrators and staff have failed to maintain stability and structure and young people are exposed to a dangerous and often chaotic environment.”
It recounts several violent incidents and sometimes scrutinizes the staff responses, such as citing the facility for failure “to monitor youth movement” that led to a group fight between two residential units.
The report also details physical issues with the detention center, such as malfunctioning door locks that led to severe restrictions on movement throughout the facility. Kids received their meals and school services in their residential units and education was interrupted because of the locks, the report found.
Egan, the public defender, said the Department of Juvenile Services has made strides at less prison-like facilities, but the detention centers continue to “warehouse” children, restricting them from education and other support networks.
“Kids who sit all day locked in a cage are going to act accordingly, and only the children are currently being held accountable for that,” Egan said. “The only people currently being punished and having their liberty restricted on behalf of the failures of adults is the children. It’s the children who are being failed.”
The physical conditions at the center, the report said, are a “reflection of the underlying culture.” The monitoring unit photographed unkept cells with graffiti adorning the walls and documented a flow of contraband, such as oxycodone.
The contraband problem at the Baltimore center was illuminated for the monitoring unit at the Victor Cullen Center in Sabillasville in Frederick County, on the Pennsylvania border. Staff there observed a youth and a visitor passing an oxycodone pill, the report said.
When they interviewed one of them, he responded: “I am surprised your staff caught it, down at Babies (BCJJC) my brother was bringing me in 5 to 10 strips of suboxone at a time during his visitation and we never got caught. I was high down there all the time.”
While the monitoring group was critical of the downtown Baltimore detention center, it lauded DJS leadership for improvements made at Victor Cullen, which is experiencing similar staffing shortages, although it operates a lower-capacity facility of 24 boys.
Despite staff vacancies, the report describes how Victor Cullen has had stabilized mental health programming, expanded activities, continued success in academic metrics and low numbers of fights and assaults and uses of restraints.
Egan said that the differences comes down to investment in children.
“The reason we shouldn’t blame it [increased fighting] on kids is that these are the same kids that do really well at Victor Cullen,” she said. “When you see the same kids doing well at a different facility, you can bet that the problem is not with the kids, the problem is with BCJJC.”
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