Inmate Escapes New Jail For Youths

By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 1, 2009

A juvenile inmate scaled a fence and escaped from the District's New Beginnings Youth Center in Laurel just one day after the $46 million campus opened to fanfare, with D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty calling it "one of the best rehabilitative facilities in the country."

Officials with the D.C. Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services said the inmate, whose name and age were not revealed because he is a juvenile, fled late Saturday evening and was being pursued by D.C., National Park and Anne Arundel County police.

A source close to the investigation said the U.S. Park Police dispatched a search helicopter within 10 minutes of the escape and that police in Anne Arundel, where the facility is located, searched for the youth on foot. The source, who asked for anonymity because the investigation is ongoing, said that since the escape, inmate movement at the center has been more restricted, staff beefed up and razor wire added to the fence. As of last night, the youth had not been found.

D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) vowed to call for a hearing "to determine the adequacy and the safety of the new building." Wells runs the committee that oversees juvenile detention but said he learned of the escape from a reporter. "I will have to dig deeper and more aggressively."

The state-of-the-art center, with its 30-acre campus and spacious lunchroom and library, was built to replace the nearby Oak Hill Youth Center, once called the Pound or Little Lorton because of its notorious history and its similarity to adult detention facilities. Oak Hill housed delinquents found guilty of the most serious charges, including armed robbery and weapons offenses.

During one period, January 1988 to January 1989, more than 300 youths were on runaway status from Oak Hill -- 191 didn't return from weekend passes and more than 125 had escaped. About that time, an investigation found that Oak Hill staff had beaten inmates badly enough to dislocate a shoulder, knock out teeth and damage a kidney. Three youths escaped from a satellite facility in 2005, but officials said there had not been an escape from Oak Hill since at least the mid-1990s, when razor wire was installed on its fence.

New Beginnings is meant to be "the anti-prison," a place where inmates can "aspire to college, to be in a place that looks like you care about them," said Vincent N. Schiraldi, director of youth services. But some officials have had concerns about it, starting with the design of the fence.

Corrections officers have said they were worried that it would not hold inmates who wanted to escape and predicted that crime would rise in the area around the facility. The issue has been a source of friction between Schiraldi and corrections officers, who contend that his policies are naive and endanger staff and nearby residents.

"We will face a major breach in security," Tasha Williams, a chairwoman for the corrections officers union, said last week in a memo to the council's Human Services Committee. "This was never intended to be a secured facility, that is clear. I see that DYRS has no concerns for public safety."

A day before the facility opened, Schiraldi and David Muhammad, chief of committed services, said they had brought in young men to try to scale the fences and made modifications based on what they observed. Schiraldi said he planned to place prickly shrubbery, possibly rose bushes, near the fence so inmates would not be tempted to flee.

In the statement, officials said an internal investigation is underway into what went wrong and how the escape happened.

Staff writer Robert E. Pierre contributed to this report.

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