State prison for teen girls a failed experiment
The concrete hallways of Florida's maximum-security
prison for girls, once filled with the echoes of nearly 100 troubled
youth, will settle into silence Tuesday when the last of the teens is
shipped off to another juvenile facility.
Frustrated state legislators have unceremoniously shut
down the scandal-ridden Florida Institute for Girls, west of West Palm
Beach, only five years after it opened.
At least one juvenile-justice advocate hailed the closure as the �right
thing to do� because the state has been unable to heal the prison once
touted as the last hope for some of Florida's most difficult juveniles.
�I think it ... points to the fact that large, prison-like warehouses
don't work with girls and, in my opinion, any juveniles, and that staff
have to be thoroughly trained and monitored to ensure the program and
services are appropriately implemented,� said Cassandra Jenkins,
juvenile-justice director at Children's Campaign, a nonprofit advocacy
group based in Tallahassee.
Despite intense scrutiny by the state Department of Juvenile Justice,
each of the two private providers hired to run the prison had been
unable to effectively control the violent girls, treat their deep-seated
emotional and psychological problems and curb the inappropriate
relationships they developed with guards.
The girls sent to the prison have committed crimes
such as carjacking, drug dealing, manslaughter, battery and rape. Most
were physically and sexually abused as children and many suffer from
serious mental health problems.
Over the years, the prison had been besieged by reports of girls
viciously attacking their peers and their guards. Some girls have
repeatedly attempted suicide. Others have been injured numerous times
after being physically restrained by staff members.
Under the watch of the first provider, two guards pleaded guilty to
engaging in criminal sexual misconduct with girls.
Increasing trouble at the prison led Palm Beach County State Attorney
Barry Krischer to impanel a grand jury in 2003 to investigate. Another
provider soon was chosen to take over. While some conditions improved
under Lighthouse Care Centers, state Juvenile Justice officials still
were concerned by the lack of appropriate therapy for the girls.
And just a few weeks ago, scandal rocked the prison again after a
44-year-old worker was arrested for having sex with a 15-year-old
The girl told investigators she was upset with William Lane, who had
worked at the prison since 2001 because he refused to pay her the $50
she was promised for sex. At the time of the incident, which occurred in
the girl's cell, the lights in the dorm were completely out, in
violation of normal protocol.
Since the Legislature announced in the spring it
wouldn't cough up the millions of dollars it takes to run the program
every year, Juvenile Justice officials and the Lighthouse staff
struggled with what to do with the more than 60 girls who remained at
About 25 have since completed the program and been released. The rest
were transferred to four other high-risk facilities for girls that also
provide mental health services.
�The transfers to these facilities are viewed as a temporary fix,� said
Tom Denham, Juvenile Justice spokesman.
In the future, he said, the state likely will spread out high-risk girls
among a number of facilities, rather than concentrating them all at one
site. And the state hopes eventually to find a successful national
program for girls to emulate here.
�The care and nurturing of high-risk girls obviously require unique
solutions that the department is dedicated to finding,� Denham said.
Jenkins of the Children's Campaign said she hopes the prison's rise and
fall will be an important lesson to state officials on what works and
what doesn't when it comes to balancing the safety of the public with
the needs of troubled youth.
�I just think this is a great opportunity to reform
the juvenile-justice system, starting with a review of the girls coming
out of the Florida Institute for Girls.�
28 August 2005