Six Inmates Briefly Escape the District's New Beginnings Youth Center in Laurel
Monday, July 6, 2009
Six teenage inmates, including four recently brought back to this area from Arizona, briefly escaped from the District's New Beginnings Youth Center in Laurel yesterday, marking the second time in just over a month that youths have gotten out of the $46 million campus billed as the solution for rehabilitating young criminals.
The six apparently broke through the door leading from their housing unit to the center's school, then shattered and climbed out a window that allowed them to get to an area not enclosed by a fence, said Tasha Williams, a chairwoman for the corrections officers union.
The incident occurred about 2 p.m. Police and employees from the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services found the youths and returned them to New Beginnings "without incident," authorities said. At least some were caught near Wal-Mart and Sam's Club stores in the area, Williams said.
Williams said four of the youths were recently involved in a fracas at a juvenile detention center in Arizona and had recently been transported back to the D.C. area. They had also tried to escape at the airport, she said.
Williams said that in recent days inmates had been breaking windows in the center and had told corrections officers that the officers were powerless to stop an escape. She said corrections officers had repeatedly warned administrators that the facility would not hold inmates who wanted to escape and would cause crime to rise in the area around the facility.
"They ignored our concerns, they ignored our issues, and then we have bigger issues with it," she said.
The incident is another embarrassment for Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's administration, which pitched New Beginnings as the "anti-prison" and a place where inmates could aspire to go to college. The center's 30-acre campus and spacious lunchroom and library were constructed to replace the Oak Hill Youth Center, which had a reputation as being similar to adult prisons. A day after New Beginnings opened to great fanfare, a juvenile inmate scaled a fence and escaped. He was captured two days later.
Williams said that although Oak Hill sometimes suffered from a "bad rap," it was more secure than New Beginnings.
"It's an empty box with a bow on it," she said of the new facility.
The Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services said in a statement that the agency "has initiated a full investigation into this matter and once complete, the agency will release the findings." A spokesman declined to comment further.
In 2001, a total of 10 youths escaped from Oak Hill in two separate incidents, which were said to be the last breakouts there, although three youths escaped from a satellite facility in 2005. Between January 1988 and January 1989, more than 300 youths were on runaway status from Oak Hill -- 191 who hadn't returned from weekend passes and more than 125 who had escaped.
After the first escape at New Beginnings, Fenty said he was sending the executive director of the Office of Public Education Facilities Modernization to examine the campus, and D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) called a hearing to discuss security issues at its facilities.
Wells said yesterday that after the hearing, Vincent N. Schiraldi, the city's director of youth services, moved quickly to install razor wire at troublesome spots near the gates on the campus's fence. Wells said that he was surprised to hear that some school windows apparently led outside the fence and that he was seeking answers on whether yesterday's incident was caused by staffing or building design problems.
"I'm confident that they will move aggressively to plug any leak regarding the security of the facility," Wells said. Schiraldi "has not seemed reluctant, but certainly the youth are showing him where the security weaknesses are in the new facility."
Williams, of the officers union, said the facility is understaffed and poorly designed, with especially flimsy doors.
Kenneth Agee, 41, who said he is the father of one of the teenagers who escaped, said the latest incident shows how "DYS plays a big part in these kids' behavior." He said his son was among those removed from the Arizona juvenile facility and put in an adult prison in June. After his release, Agee said, the boy was left to roam the streets for five days before being transported back to the District.
"I guess they just ran," he said of yesterday's incident. "It's so easy to get out, is my understanding."