Kids claim abuse and violence at juvenile lockup Thompson Academy
Reggie received the call New Year's Day, when most of the world was still nursing a hangover.
"Your son got into an altercation," said a staffer at the Thompson Academy juvenile detention center in Pembroke Pines. "We think we're going to have to take him to the hospital."
Heart pounding, Reggie — whose full name New Times is withholding to protect her privacy — listened to a strange story. The staffers said her 17-year-old son, Davie, had been outside playing football. He began arguing with some other kids. Suddenly an older boy slugged him in the face.
He hit his head on a metal pole and fell to the ground, unconscious. As he lay helpless in the dirt, Reggie was later told that other teenagers joined in to kick and beat him. The guards, although trained to supervise and protect the community's most troubled kids, insisted "it all happened so fast that they couldn't prevent it. "
Reggie rushed to Memorial Regional Hospital in Hollywood. Davie's face was cartoonishly swollen and bruised, one purplish eye shut. He was drooling and in terrible pain. The doctors whisked him off to surgery, where they inserted five metal plates into his broken face — including one at his temple that gave his eyelid a permanent droop. Twelve screws laced his broken jaw back together.
For six days, Reggie stayed at his hospital bedside. Davie couldn't eat, talk, or open his mouth. "My son almost died," she says.
She couldn't believe that was her reward for asking the State of Florida to straighten out her son. Thompson Academy was already facing a lawsuit alleging widespread abuse of its inmates. Yet authorities continued to insist that nothing was wrong. With juvenile delinquents making the claims, it was hard to know whom to believe.
Reggie has long, dark-brown hair and creamy skin covered with copious tattoos — Davie's name on one ankle, "Bitch Killa" on the other. Her eyebrows are permanently arched. A hard anger creeps easily into her voice, tempered by flashes of sweetness when she calls her daughter "mami."
She's only 33, but bitterness has aged her. Her life has taken a series of unforgiving turns.
She got pregnant with Davie when she was 15, raising him on her own because his dad was in prison. By the time Davie was 3, Reggie had given birth to another baby, a girl.
In 1998, Reggie was arrested for armed robbery and burglary with assault and battery. She was sentenced to eight and a half years in prison and watched Davie's childhood unfold from behind bars of the Homestead Correctional Institution. His grandparents took care of him and his younger sister. Reggie snapped photos when the kids came to visit her in the slammer, their arms wrapped around her neck, her daughter smiling at the camera, Davie offering a wary stare.
Released in 2007, Reggie was determined to find a better path. She rented a house in Homestead and began taking classes to become a medical assistant. She got to know her now-teenage son, who loved to play baseball and wanted to join the Army. But his difficult childhood took a toll. He was diagnosed as emotionally handicapped and was enrolled in special-ed classes. He inherited his parents' flair for danger.
First he was arrested for pulling the door handles on strangers' cars, setting off their alarms. Then he was caught trying to shoplift a USB cord from Kmart, Reggie says (juvenile court records are not public). He landed in the Miami-Dade Regional Juvenile Detention Center last March.
Now it was a judge's responsibility to figure out what to do with him. In most juvenile cases, a group of people including Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) officials, the parents, and a representative of the child get together before sentencing to recommend which level of punishment the child should receive. The judge makes a final ruling, and then DJJ officials decide which facility is best, says Gordon Weekes Jr., chief assistant public defender for Broward.
The lowest level of punishment is a day school, where kids live at home but attend special classes and activities daily. Next there are "moderate-risk" programs, which can include wilderness camps or residential lockups such as Thompson. These programs are not nearly as restrictive as high-security lockups, which are more akin to adult prisons, where the worst offenders are sent.
Davie was sentenced to a moderate-risk program. DJJ chose Thompson Academy. On a state website, Thompson is described as a nonsecure, "therapeutic" program. Kids attend school on-site, live in dorm rooms, receive treatment for substance abuse, and have time to play sports outside. Reggie believed it would be a good choice because it was a residential facility close to home. It would give her son the discipline and counseling he needed.
"I was ecstatic," she says. "I thought this was, like, the best thing they could do for my son. And look what happened."
Thompson Academy is a single-story, industrial-gray rectangle of cinder block housed on the Howard C. Forman Human Services Campus in Pembroke Pines. Built in the '70s as part of a state mental hospital, the lockup has 154 beds and is not surrounded by fence or wire. The teenage boys here generally have been convicted of "serious property offenses, and their offending is characterized by frequent and repeated law violations," according to DJJ's website. In other words, these kids might have stolen a car or burglarized a home, but they are not violent felons.
A for-profit Sarasota company, Youth Services International, has a $14.8 million, three-year state contract to operate the facility. Youth Services President James Slattery has been running private prisons for nearly 20 years. And despite corporate name changes, mergers, and moves, his companies have been haunted by scandals.
He began by renting decrepit hotel rooms to homeless families in New York. Then he helped found Esmor Correctional Services, which ran halfway houses and prisons in several states. In 1995, Immigration and Naturalization Services detainees at one of Esmor's New Jersey prisons rioted over disgusting living conditions and abuse — including allegations that the guards beat them and shoved their heads in toilet bowls. Embarrassed by the national scandal, the company moved its headquarters to Sarasota. Within months, Esmor, with Slattery as president, had signed contracts to run two juvenile detention centers in Florida and switched its name to Correctional Services Corp.
But the bad headlines continued. In 1998, state officials found that guards at the company's Pahokee prison were physically abusing kids and holding them beyond their release dates to collect extra money. The state canceled Correctional Services' contract. Yet the company survived and merged with another firm that ran juvenile lockups. In 2005, with Slattery at the helm, Youth Services International broke away from Correctional Services and became an independent business, focused on juvenile detention.
Youth Services now operates eight juvenile lockups in Florida, along with seven others in Georgia, Iowa, Minnesota, South Dakota, and Rhode Island. Its taxpayer-funded contracts in Florida total $74 million, according to a federal lawsuit. And the abuse allegations keep stacking up.
In 2008, a former resident of a South Dakota Youth Services lockup filed a federal lawsuit alleging that a female guard repeatedly sexually assaulted him when he was 16. The guard confessed and was fired. Youth Services and the plaintiff agreed to dismiss the lawsuit.
Last year, Florida DJJ officials criticized a Youth Services facility in St. Augustine for complaints that were eerily similar to those later alleged at Thompson Academy. Staff at St. Johns Juvenile Correctional Facility and Youth Academy used excessive force on inmates, failed to properly supervise teenagers who were at risk for suicide, and didn't investigate a sexual assault complaint, according to a written DJJ evaluation. Supervisors were also allegedly "instructed to discourage or talk youth out of making complaints to the abuse registry."
Over time, Weekes, of the Broward Public Defender's Office, noticed that many of his juvenile clients who were being housed at Thompson Academy showed up for court hearings complaining about chipped teeth, deep gashes, and other injuries from fights. In 2008, he began writing letters urging Youth Services to investigate mistreatment and violence at Thompson Academy.
He worried that the guards were not supervising the inmates properly and might be using excessive force to break up fights. Four teenagers escaped from the facility in two months; 23 reports of child abuse were called in to the Department of Children and Families (DCF) that year. The lockup's head administrator was arrested for driving drunk and pleaded no contest to a DUI charge. Youth Services promised a thorough investigation of all the complaints. By 2010, Thompson had hired a new administrator, Craig Ferguson. But Weekes says the problems remained.
"The core of the program and the tone [of complaints] I was receiving from the children... nothing had changed."
Davie arrived at Thompson Academy last July. His mom didn't visit often; she'd just had a third baby and wasn't allowed to bring young children into the facility regularly. But on family visiting days, Davie complained bitterly about the lockup. The guards encouraged kids to fight and cursed at them, he told his mom. They were forced to throw away their food if they talked too much or didn't eat fast enough. She learned later, from the guards, that there were multiple fights a day.
During Davie's weekly phone calls home, he was forced to talk on speaker phone so the guards could hear the conversations. When Reggie brought her daughters to visit, one counselor screamed at her 14-year-old.
"I've seen how they talk to the kids. They use curse words like they were friends from the street," Reggie says.
Davie told his mom that Thompson Academy was so awful he'd rather go back to the juvenile detention center or even the county jail.
"I can't take this, Mom, I can't," Reggie remembers him saying. "Get me out of here, Mom. I hate this place."
Reggie called Thompson Academy to complain about the treatment her son described. Employees said they would look into the problems, but nothing changed.
Meanwhile, other inmates' mothers — whom Reggie didn't know — were beginning to worry. Ms. Snow, who didn't want her first name published, complained from the first day her 16-year-old son arrived at Thompson last May. "I was really distraught, brought to tears," she says.
Snow is a petite woman, immaculately dressed in jeans, with silver jewelry and tasteful lip gloss. She thought the academy was rundown, with piles of dirt on the floor and dust on the windows, visibly showing its age. She asked to see the classrooms but was not allowed. Her son reported that some of the dorm rooms had broken air-conditioning units during the swampy, hot summer months. He saw mold in the classrooms. Like Davie, he was constantly hungry, despite the small portions of pizza and pasta provided for Thompson by a local caterer. Snow says he grew three inches during his six-month incarceration but lost ten pounds.
Snow visited her son every weekend. Once she noticed a gash on his chest.
"What happened?" she asked.
"Nothing, nothing," he told her.
When pressed, he said another teenager had choked him until he was unconscious. When he recovered, he tried to fight the boy who had attacked him. A guard stopped him and began "slamming him back and forth" on the ground, Snow says. The incident left a scar on his chest.
Such complaints might have been dismissed as spats between troubled kids. But soon other inmates came forward with even more disturbing tales.
Last April, an unidentified 14-year-old boy was fighting with other children. Guards stepped in to restrain him and broke his upper-arm bone, according to DCF.
That same spring, a 14-year-old boy identified only as D.B. told Thompson Academy administrators he was sexually assaulted by a male "youth counselor."
D.B.'s lawyer describes him as a gentle kid with a keen radar for bullshit.
One day, he was in the laundry room, washing clothes as part of his required chores, breathing in the smell of bleach and detergent. According to a lawsuit that would later be filed, a short, solidly built 23-year-old guard cornered him and asked, "Are you going to suck it?" D.B claimed he refused, but the counselor forced himself on him. Afterward, he spat the evidence into a rag. He brought it to a female staff member he trusted and explained what happened.
That staffer reported the alleged attack to a supervisor, but neither of them wrote an official report, contacted the police, or called the state child-abuse hotline, as required by law. The woman later told police that D.B. hadn't given her a rag.
The next day, D.B. alleges in the lawsuit, he brought his complaint to Ferguson, but the administrator instructed him not to mention the attack to anyone.
A few days later, D.B. claims, an unidentified investigator questioned him, asking whether his attacker was circumcised. D.B. said yes and was told he "passed." That was the end of the inquiry.
Later, Ferguson told police that his assistant knew about the allegations but "basically did his own investigation and determined that the alleged incident did not occur."
Months passed, and the accused counselor kept working. In August, he accompanied D.B and some other Thompson residents to a local dentist's office to have their teeth cleaned. Shortly after they arrived, D.B. claims, the counselor told him to ask permission to use the bathroom. D.B. complied and came out of the stall to find the counselor waiting in the doorway for him. He asked D.B. if he was "going to do it."
"Suck it," the counselor said.
He then allegedly locked the door, ordered the boy to get on his knees, and shoved his penis into D.B.'s mouth. Afterward, they returned to the dental appointment. D.B. didn't report the incident until months later, and police investigated only after the lawsuit was filed.
Meanwhile, the violence at Thompson continued to escalate. Instead of learning to control their tempers and respect authority, as the program promised, the inmates lashed out at one another.
In late September, a 16-year-old identified only as D.L. got in trouble when he talked back to a counselor. D.L. was from Orange County and had been confined to Thompson for seven long months. A few weeks earlier, he had been accused of fighting with another resident. Part of his punishment was to have his time at the lockup extended. His patience with prison life was wearing thin. One day he was sitting in the day room at Thompson when a counselor approached him and ordered him to stand up, "fuck nigger."
"Get up!" the counselor commanded, over and over, according to the lawsuit. D.L. refused.
The guard grabbed him by the collar and slammed him against a wall, twisting his arms behind his back. He wrapped a hand around D.L.'s neck.
D.L. gasped and struggled to fight back. The adult taunted him.
"Tighten up, you pussy-ass jit!" he said, using prison slang for a young wannabe thug.
He rammed D.L.'s head into a metal door a few times, leaving a clanging, ringing pain. Other staffers stood by, urging the counselor to "chill out."
He ignored them and dragged D.L. down the hall, slamming him into the wall as he went.
When it was over, D.L.'s clothes were ripped, his body bruised and shaken. He announced he wanted to call the child-abuse hotline. But Thompson staffers tried to dissuade him.
"Calm down; we're gonna talk this through," they said, according to the lawsuit.
D.L. worried that his prison sentence would be extended if he ratted out a guard. Eventually he signed a waiver saying he declined to report the incident.
Time passed, and no relief came inside Thompson's graying walls. The lawsuit says that after he was sexually assaulted, D.B. tried to commit suicide by drinking bleach and attempting to hang himself.
Weekes, D.B.'s lawyer from the Broward Public Defender's Office, realized he needed help. His clients' complaints about Thompson were falling on deaf ears. He shared his concerns with attorneys from the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), a nonprofit advocacy group based in Alabama that has successfully sued juvenile detention centers.
A team of SPLC lawyers began investigating. Interviewing kids at Thompson and listening to the mothers' stories, they grew more horrified by the day. In October, they filed a federal class-action lawsuit against Youth Services, DJJ, Thompson Academy administrator Ferguson, and individual counselors on behalf of D.B., D.L., Snow's son, and two other inmates. (Davie's beating had not yet happened, and he was not one of the plaintiffs.) The suit described a violent, almost medieval place where children were beaten, raped, and deprived of food and medical attention. It alleged a slew of civil rights violations: denial of access to lawyers, physical abuse, sexual assault, failure to provide medical treatment, prison sentences extended without due process, lack of adequate meals, and negligent supervision. The plaintiffs asked for punitive monetary damages and a permanent injunction requiring Thompson officials to stop their "unlawful practices."
Days after the suit was filed, a Broward juvenile judge released D.B. from Thompson. The counselor who allegedly assaulted him was removed from contact with other inmates. Pembroke Pines Police, DCF, and DJJ officials all vowed a thorough investigation.
Snow and the mothers of several other inmates began holding meetings and protests. They formed a group, Stop Abusing Our Kids, with the aim of getting the state to cancel Youth Services' contract for Thompson. Snow's son was released from the lockup in November. But other children who participated in the lawsuit remained while their lawyers worked to persuade judges to release the boys.
Tensions escalated inside Thompson. According to the lawsuit, children were offered special privileges if they agreed not to speak with SPLC attorneys. When TV cameras and other reporters showed up to investigate the allegations of sexual abuse, the kids were warned not to talk to anyone, Reggie claims.
On New Year's Day, Davie was attacked and sent to the hospital. The beating became a vivid symbol of the spiraling violence inside Thompson.
Reggie, who now had a 6-month-old baby to care for, spent her days and nights in the hospital. Wild-eyed with anger and exhaustion, she showed up at the African-American Research Library and Cultural Center in Fort Lauderdale on January 7, carrying a blown-up photo of Davie's bruised, swollen face.
She and other members of the Stop Abusing Our Kids group were there to speak at a public meeting of the Broward delegation of state legislators. Standing in front of the auditorium stage, they formed a solemn line of seven women, wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the plea: "Cancel the Contract." One by one, they stepped up to the microphone.
"The youth at this facility are being abused," began Ms. Snow.
"My son is harassed and discriminated [against] because he does not speak English," said another woman.
"My son was sexually assaulted twice," added D.B.'s mom, a tiny woman with braided hair. "He also tried to commit suicide twice."
Then came Reggie, barely able to contain her tears.
"My son got beat. He cannot talk. My son is in severe pain. And I want something done."
The lawmakers listened sympathetically. They vowed to write a letter to DJJ, demanding an immediate investigation. But it seemed a hollow crusade. The state was already investigating, and it wasn't going well.
A few days before the Broward delegation meeting, a Pembroke Pines Police officer had finished his investigation of D.B.'s sexual assault allegations. It was clear he had a tough time trusting a juvenile delinquent's word over that of a prison guard. The cop concluded that the accusations were "unfounded."
"There is no evidence to show that a sexual battery occurred," he wrote.
But his report raised almost as many questions as it answered. He admitted that the investigation had been hampered because Thompson didn't report the alleged attacks when they occurred. Instead, officials waited until the lawsuit was filed — when any physical evidence would be gone. When questioned, staff members had trouble remembering what happened, and their version of events didn't jibe with D.B.'s recollection.
"Due to the poor records keeping by the staff at the Thompson Academy, additional investigative inquiries and obtaining of evidence could not be made to compare to the allegations being alleged," the officer wrote.
The counselor accused of assaulting D.B. disputed the claims and "absolutely denied asking the victim to perform oral sex on him on any occasion."
Meanwhile, the police officer said he had "severe credibility concerns" about D.B. He noted that at one point during questioning, "the victim said that he didn't mind performing oral sex on the suspect," the officer wrote. D.B. added that "this was part of a plan where he intended to sue the suspect for doing what he did."
Here was the essential challenge for all the officials investigating complaints at Thompson: The victims were kids with criminal records. The suspects were poorly paid prison guards with the unenviable job of trying to manage rebellious teenagers. Without objective evidence to examine, whom should they believe?
DCF officials agreed with the police officer's conclusion that the sexual assault allegations were unfounded. They also didn't believe Thompson's guards harmed D.L. A child-abuse hotline call received by DCF in September said D.L. had tried to throw a chair at another inmate, and a guard took him down and held him on the floor using a "questionable technique."
Law enforcement investigators later read written statements by teenagers who had witnessed the incident, and all were "consistent with the staff statements" that D.L. was "not slammed or choked," according to a DCF summary report.
"They reported [D.L.] was disrespectful and not listening to staff directions and escorted, not restrained."
In the case of Snow's son, DCF investigators reached a similar conclusion. They conceded he lost three pounds in four months at Thompson, but "there was no other evidence to establish excessive force," a summary report stated. "[The] youth had attacked other clients and been restrained in the past."
As for the fight that sent Davie to the hospital, a Pembroke Pines Police report provides a markedly different explanation from the one Reggie says she was given by the mothers of other kids who witnessed the incident.
According to the report, the Thompson inmates were playing touch football on the morning of January 1. Davie tackled another boy, violating the rules of this nonviolent version of the game. The five staffers outside supervising the kids declared the game was over and had the inmates line up to go inside. That's when another boy walked up and slugged Davie in the face. The teenager told police that he was tired of Davie's "constant bullying" and that "it really bothered him" to see Davie tackle the smaller boy.
When Davie fell, he struck his chin on a concrete deck. He was treated for a small cut above his left eye at the Thompson clinic. The report makes no mention of him being unconscious.
Three hours later, at 1:30 p.m., Davie complained that his jaw hurt, the report says. He was taken to Memorial Regional Hospital.
The police report doesn't blame Thompson officials for the fight. It says "a lack of supervision does not appear to be a factor" in the incident. DCF officials corroborated the police report, closing the case with "no indicators of inadequate supervision." But neither the DCF investigator nor the police officer interviewed Davie, because he was still in the hospital, unable to talk.
In fact, of the 13 abuse allegations reported at Thompson last year, DCF concluded that only one of them had merit — the boy whose arm was broken by the guards.
In the state's eyes, Thompson is a praiseworthy institution. In October 2009, it received a "commendable performance" grade in a quality assurance review conducted by investigators from the state DJJ. Last November, after the lawsuit was filed, officials returned to see if the good grade should stand. They reviewed six case management and medical files, conducted "three youth and three staff surveys," and did "several informal interviews with youth, staff, and management personnel," according to a summary report. When the review was finished, the investigators decided Thompson should retain its "deemed status," meaning it has an overall performance rating of 80 percent or higher.
Youth Services has filed a motion to dismiss the suit, arguing the SPLC has provided no proof of "actual injury" to the children nor evidence that the problems go beyond a small group of prisoners. "As to the claims of excessive force, inadequate medical care, inadequate food, and sexual abuse, these too fail because there are no allegations of actual injury cognizable in prisoner actions," the company's lawyer, Tod Aronovitz, wrote in a court pleading.
The company also obtained an affidavit from an inmate's mother, Gema Londono of Miami, who says she has seen "significant improvement" in her son's behavior since he arrived at Thompson Academy.
"He is more respectful, and his manners and speech have improved," she wrote. "[He] has been awarded a scholarship for school after he is released from the facility. I am extremely grateful and happy for the impact Thompson Academy has had on my son's life."
Neither Ferguson nor Slattery responded to requests for comment. Aronovitz has asked for a gag order in the case. DJJ denied New Times' request to tour Thompson.
But in early February, a small group of local legislators was granted an opportunity to tour the lockup. Rep. Luis Garcia Jr. (D-Miami Beach) and Rep. Evan Jenne (D-Dania Beach) saw freshly painted walls, blanketed by the chemical smell of bleach. There were guards in baggy shorts who "look more like inmates than counselors," Garcia said.
"I wasn't very happy with it," he added. "Even juvenile delinquents have the same rights that you and I have to safety, and I don't think they're getting that at the Thompson Academy."
Garcia was particularly concerned that there was only one staffer — a psychologist — who could speak enough Spanish to communicate with the inmates who weren't fluent in English.
Jenne said he had the "overwhelming feeling" that Thompson officials were putting on a show for the lawmakers. One parent was brought in to describe how wonderful the facility was, but upon further questioning, she admitted she was hoping to win a contract to provide music lessons at the academy.
"They were definitely putting their best foot forward," he said. "Whether that's a sign of a coverup or anything, who knows?"
Both Jenne and Garcia, who is a trained paramedic, questioned the official version of the fight that left Davie with five metal plates in his face and a jaw held together with screws. "These injuries do not correspond with getting punched [once] in the face and falling over," Jenne said.
He wants a more thorough investigation of all the abuse allegations at Thompson. "This company does not have a good track record," he said. "I met with dozens of parents. They're all telling variations on the same story."
But he also said the decision to cancel Youth Services' contract is not a legislative one. It's up to Gov. Rick Scott and the new secretary of DJJ, Miami's Wansley Walters, both of whom have expressed support for cutting down on the number of juveniles incarcerated in Florida. As head of Miami-Dade Juvenile Services, Walters started a program to monitor young offenders at home using ankle bracelets instead of sending them to lockups. Scott's transition team proposed a massive overhaul of Florida's juvenile justice system, which would eliminate some prisons and put children convicted of misdemeanor offenses in community-based programs.
If the goal is to eliminate juvie lockups, Thompson Academy would be a great place to start, Jenne says. "It's already a lightning rod. You can cut x amount of beds right here, right now."
Scott's office did not respond to requests for comment.
Meanwhile, Davie is on home detention, recuperating from his injuries. Now living with his paternal grandmother, he spends his days drinking liquid meal replacements through torn lips, watching television, and playing on the computer. Screws still hold his jaw together, and the metal plates in his face are permanent, Reggie says. She plans to file a separate civil lawsuit against Thompson Academy.
Her lawyers won't allow Davie to speak to the media. He was slated to return to Thompson in mid-March, but at presstime, Reggie was planning to fight that ruling in court. She says her son is depressed, "in pain, and pissed off, worried he's got to go back to that place and he's gonna get killed."
Every two weeks, she takes him to the doctor. Right now, Medicaid is covering the bills. She hopes Thompson Academy will eventually pick up the tab.
On a recent afternoon, she discusses her son as she prepares empanadas for the rest of her family in Homestead. As the oil crackles in the pan, she carefully folds a tortilla over a small pocket of meat and presses a fork around the edges. The eye-stinging, mouthwatering scent of onions and fried dough soon fills the air.
Every few minutes, Reggie excuses herself to check on her youngest daughter, who's napping in another room. There's a pink crib in the corner of the living room and a matching baby's swing nearby. On the wall behind the TV set is a large, framed picture of Davie as a baby — dark-haired and grinning cherubically.
Beside it is a photo of a young girl in a princess' ball gown, layers of pink satin cascading over the skirt, silk gloves hugging her arms. It's Reggie on her quinceañera; she was pregnant with Davie when the picture was taken.
Now her son is older than she was, facing an equally uncertain future.
"That's why I want these kids to learn," she says. "Accidents happen, you make bad choices in life."
She pulls out a small plastic bag containing an olive-green wristband. It's Davie's ID bracelet, which he had to remove at the hospital.
"Keep the Peace," it reads. "Thompson Academy."