Arkansas youth-jail locks not replaced despite years of safety warnings

The locks that keep young Arkansans behind bars at a juvenile jail in Alexander still haven’t been replaced — despite years of warnings that the obsolete deadbolts posed safety concerns and lawmakers’ promises to pay for updates.

At least 169 locks at the Arkansas Juvenile Assessment and Treatment Center are secured by a heavy bolt and latch mechanism that can be opened only manually, one by one.

That means in case of an emergency, such as a fire, “crucial seconds, minutes would be lost,” said Sharon Cowell, a lawyer for Disability Rights Arkansas, a nonprofit advocacy group with federal monitoring authority.

“It’s highly likely children will be trapped and potentially perish due to the antiquated locking system,” Cowell said.

Cowell described the locks at the Alexander site as “the most difficult to maneuver.” But dozens of other juvenile facilities, including county-run detention centers, pose similar risks because their locks can’t be remotely opened.

Last August, during a Joint Performance Review Committee meeting held at the Alexander lockup, lawmakers vowed to find the $1 million needed to replace the locks at the Alexander facility.

Top officers from Rite of Passage, a Nevada-based company that runs the youth jail for the state, told committee members that they were worried about the locks, as well as the site’s “general decline in maintenance.”

The executives did not provide any examples of the 120-bed facility’s disrepair during that meeting. Lawmakers did not ask questions about it either.

However, Rep. Kim Hammer, R-Benton, a co-chairman of the legislative panel, said he was “extremely, extremely concerned” after Department of Human Services officials testified that the state would be liable if a disaster involving the locks occurred.

After the meeting, Hammer told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that legislators would “work hard to get the money.”

No funds were set aside for the locks during the 2017 legislative session.

Yet, the state Division of Youth Services was given the go-ahead to spend the money to replace the locks — if the dollars become available.

All state agencies compete for capital projects funding from the same pot of money. There are more than $1 billion in capital project requests, but only $20 million to $35 million available, according to the Department of Finance and Administration.

Amy Webb, a spokesman for the Human Services Department, which oversees the youth services agency, said that updating the locks remains a priority.

“There’s a limited amount of available funding for capital projects,” Webb said. “It’s really for the most critical and urgent needs.”

The Human Services staff is trying to “find efficiencies” within the department’s budget that can go toward replacing the locks, she added.

Hammer said he was not aware that the old locks remained. The Division of Youth Services “was supposed to make this a priority item,” he said.

“This is an accident waiting to happen. … Why haven’t we found the money yet?” he said. “We can’t turn a blind eye to it. The number one priority is the health and safety of anyone in state custody, regardless of why they’re in there.”

Rite of Passage counsel Debby Thetford Nye said the company has worked with state officials to “explore options available to address the concern.”

Nye acknowledged that the company — which has a $34.1 million, three-year contract to run the Alexander center — was waiting on money for the locks from Arkansas’ capital projects fund.

“We are hopeful the situation will be concluded soon,” she added.

Locked in

In 1959, 21 boys at a juvenile facility perished during Pulaski County’s deadliest fire in recorded history.

Through acrid smoke, the boys clawed at the steel mesh intended to keep them from escaping through the windows. Flames sprinted up the walls and across the ceiling.

Guards had locked the dormitory doors from the outside before the boys went to bed, as they did every night.

The rickety Depression-era building on the Arkansas Negro Boys’ Industrial School campus in Wrightsville buckled before firetrucks arrived.

After mounting scrutiny and several rounds of inquiries, then-Gov. Orval Faubus admitted that faulty wiring could have contributed to the fire. A Pulaski County grand jury later found that state officials allowed the school’s conditions to deteriorate and that lawmakers, aware of these circumstances, failed to provide the money needed to make changes.

The same fate could befall the youths at the current Alexander facility, public defender Dorcy Corbin says.

“Have the attitudes changed is the question,” said Corbin. “It seems like the answer is no; otherwise it would be fixed.”

State officials have known that the locks at the Alexander facility posed a danger for at least 15 years, records show.

During a 2002 inspection of the facility, U.S. Department of Justice investigators flagged the locking system for not including a remote unlocking device. The facility was then operated by a for-profit company called Cornell Cos. Inc.

“This is especially dangerous given the absence of adequate fire suppression and smoke detection equipment,” the federal agency asserted in a letter sent to then-Gov. Mike Huckabee.

In a 19-page 2014 report, Disability Rights Arkansas found that the old locks remained. The nonprofit continued to voice its concerns about the locks, year after year.

The youth lockup’s difficult-to-open locks have not been noted in annual fire inspection records as a concern regarding blocked or obstructed access to exits, according to Bryant Fire Department inspection reports between 2012 and 2017.

A Fire Department representative said he wasn’t overly concerned with the locks because the area is “limited in combustible materials,” and there is a sprinkler system that “should hopefully come out in case of a fire.”

State officials could not confirm last week whether the sprinklers were added since the Department of Justice sent its findings to the state 15 years ago.

The Justice Department’s inspection came after the Democrat-Gazette exposed the facility’s abysmal conditions in 1998.

Since then, the newspaper has chronicled the maltreatment and abuse of teenagers at the Alexander lockup, which has been managed by a string of private contractors.

The latest abuse allegation at the Alexander site comes from video footage depicting a guard assaulting a compliant youth last December. According to Rite of Passage, the guard was fired, and Arkansas State Police were notified of the incident.

Rite of Passage, which began operation of the Alexander site last August, has had its own experience with fire inside one of its juvenile facilities.

In February of 2015, at youth lockup in rural Nevada, teens armed with makeshift weapons rioted and set fire to two buildings. Two staff members were injured, and 10 youths escaped. The company was embroiled in a civil lawsuit for months with the state of Nevada about which party was responsible for damages until Nevada settled in 2016.

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