Report: Staff errors allowed two to escape Md. juvenile facility

Workers at the Cheltenham Youth Facility failed to follow basic security and supervisory protocols before and after two detainees escaped from the facility on July 15, according to a report released Wednesday.

The 19-page “special report” was released by the Maryland Attorney General’s Juvenile Justice Monitoring Unit. The report describes security and supervisory breakdowns that allowed the youths, then aged 17 and 14, to escape the facilityin southern Prince George’s County.

The teens were arrested after they unsuccessfully tried to carjack a woman near Southern Maryland Hospital, according to the report.

The youths escaped from the Cornish Cottage around 1 a.m., according to the report. One staff member who was supposed to be supervising the cottage admitted to falling asleep while watching a movie, according to the report.

The report said the youths took a pair of bolt cutters inside the cottage.

“A door from the cell hallway into a room with an external exit door was unlocked,” according to the report. “The room was formerly designated as a game room but was little used at the time of the escape. The external doorway from said room was also unlocked.

“Video footage indicates that lack of appropriate supervision enabled the youths to wander in and out of this room, in and out of the building, and back and forth along the cell hallway before they left the facility,” according to the report

The video showed one of the teenagers testing bolt cutters on wire window mesh in the room formerly used as a game room, the report said. “Investigative reports indicate the youths cut a hole in the [facility’s] fence and left on foot,” according to the report. “They walked approximately 3 miles on Surratt’s Road toward Southern Maryland Hospital.”

Near the hospital, the teenagers shouted at a driver to get out of her vehicle, but she drove off and called police, the report said.

“The youths were spotted and apprehended by police officers soon after a second attempt to procure transportation failed,” according to the report.The two were arrested about 2:30 p.m, and were to be charged as adults with escape and attempted carjacking, the report said.

Cheltenham staff members were unaware any youths were missing until about 1:30 a.m., the report said. Staff members conducted a fence check about a half-hour after it was breached, but the examination was incomplete, and the hole in the fence was not immediately discovered.

Staff members did not take a population count, and a community notification system — meant to be activated after an escape — was not activated, the report said.

The report recommended that staff members check security equipment to ensure it is working, and also check fences. The report said Cheltenham administrators and staffers should be trained and retrained to ensure all detainees are supervised at all times; entry and exit points are secured; head counts are conducted accurately; surprise and thorough searches are performed regularly; and that staff members carry out their duties “appropriately” and document their activities in a unit logbook.

In February, 2010, a teacher at Cheltenham was killed — allegedly by a detainee — after the boy was left unattended by staff members for an hour the day of the murder, according to a report by the inspector general of the state Department of Juvenile Services.

Detectives believe the victim, Hannah Wheeling, 65, was beaten and strangled by the detainee, who was 13 at the time, during the hour he was left unattended, police have said.

The suspect, Brian Lee Wonsom, now 15, has been charged as an adult with the murder and is scheduled to go on trial in Prince George’s Circuit Court next January.

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