A District teenager who was being held at a secure youth detention facility in Maryland attacked a guard early Monday morning, stole his keys, climbed the fence using a nearby ladder and escaped in the guard’s car, officials said.
As of Monday evening, D.C. police said they had found the car but not the youth, a 17-year-old from Southeast Washington who escaped from New Beginnings Youth Development Center in Laurel. Officials said the guard was hospitalized but has returned home.
“We’ve got a big problem here,” said D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), who oversees the District’s Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services (DYRS). “I have serious doubts whether we have a secure facility at New Beginnings.”
This is the third escape from the center since it opened in May 2009 to replace the long-troubled Oak Hill facility. New Beginnings, which has a $46 million campus, was hailed as a state-of-the-art model for youth detention and a place to rehabilitate young criminals. Although the center is in Anne Arundel County, it is run for and by the District.
Neil Stanley, interim director of DYRS, said in a statement that officials were working with District police and other authorities “to pursue all possible leads to recapture the youth.”
Stanley said in the statement that the incident was under investigation and that no further details would be released.
Graham said the youth was being held on burglary and theft charges. He said the teen has been in DYRS custody since January 2010, although it was not clear whether he was held at New Beginnings for all of that time.
Tasha Williams, chairwoman of the union that represents correctional officers at New Beginnings, said the escapee and another detainee popped open the locked doors to their rooms, came out and beat the officer. They stole his swipe card so they could leave the unit and made their way to an exterior fence, where a ladder was lying around, she said.
The 17-year-old was able to quickly climb up the ladder to escape, and the other youth was caught. Graham said the ladder had been left by a maintenance crew.
The escapee jumped into the guard’s car and sped off, Graham said.
Williams said she has been warning New Beginnings authorities that residents have been picking the locks on the wooden doors to their rooms. She added that the youths took advantage of minimum staffing during the overnight shift.
The officer who was attacked, a 20-year veteran, was guarding 10 residents, each in his own room, Williams said. During the day, she said, there are three officers, a supervisor and support staff assigned to a group of 10 residents.
New Beginnings, a 60-bed facility, was built as an “anti-prison” — a place where detainees could aspire to go to college, officials said when it opened.
One day after the center opened in 2009, a juvenile inmate scaled the exterior fence and escaped. Officers had already been voicing concerns about residents being able to easily scale the fence.
On Monday, Williams said she also has long expressed concerns to officials that the exterior fence is too close to the dorms.
“You may as well not call it a secure facility,” Williams said. “You may as well call it playground detention.”
She said youths find it particularly hard during warm weather to face restrictions on their freedom.
“Kids think they’re missing something, and they want to go home during summer,” she said.