D.C. Punishes Youth Center Employees For Escapes

By Paul Duggan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 10, 2009

D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty yesterday fired five corrections workers at the city's New Beginnings Youth Center in Laurel, put two other employees on leave and demoted the detention center's superintendent, saying all were negligent in failing to stop two recent escapes from the $46 million facility, which opened just weeks ago.

Announcing the personnel actions at a news conference, Fenty (D) said a preliminary investigation of the escapes has turned up "lots of things that the contractor who built New Beginnings did not do right," including installing doors and windows that were not secure. Still, Fenty said, the escapes "were preventable" if not for the poor performance of several staff members.

"There were staff on duty who either should have, could have, or just plain did not do everything they could have and should have done to prevent these escapes," the mayor said. He declined to be specific about the alleged failures.

"We do not pretend that these personnel actions are the last ones that will be taken," he added.

Six teenage inmates briefly escaped from the facility Sunday, the second breakout in a month from a 30-acre campus billed as a state-of-the-art facility 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 to an area not enclosed by a fence, said Tasha Williams, a top official of the corrections officers union.

The youths were quickly returned to the facility, which is run by the city's Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services. Williams said corrections officers had repeatedly warned officials that the facility would not hold inmates who wanted to escape. "They ignored our concerns, they ignored our issues, and then we have bigger issues with it," she said.

The Fenty administration has described New Beginnings as an "anti-prison," a place where young lawbreakers can be educated, counseled and set straight in an environment far more conducive to rehabilitation than the facility it replaced -- the notorious Oak Hill Youth Center, which had a reputation as similar to adult prisons. A day after New Beginnings opened in May, an inmate scaled a fence and escaped. He was captured two days later.

In an interview, Williams said she had no immediate comment on the firings. But she referred to New Beginnings as "Camp Cupcake," and she urged the city to make it tougher and more secure.

The city's director of youth rehabilitation services, Vincent N. Schiraldi, criticized Williams at the news conference. "We're trying to change a culture that was a prison culture to one that's more rehabilitative," Schiraldi said. Referring to corrections officers, he said: "Some folks don't agree with that approach. I think Tasha is amongst them, frankly."

D.C. Attorney General Peter Nickles also vowed to stay the course at New Beginnings.

"We are not going to run a prison," he said. "We are not going to just lock people up and throw away the key. It doesn't work, it won't work and we won't tolerate it."

As for the alleged construction-related problems, Nickles said, "it would be our position that the contractor is legally liable." Asked who in city government was responsible for making sure the contractor did the work correctly, Fenty replied: "Me."

The fired workers and those suspended pending the outcome of the investigation include six corrections officers and one shift supervisor. The superintendent, Dexter Dunbar, will be "severely demoted" within the agency, Fenty said.

This is not the first time Fenty has disciplined employees for alleged negligence. In March, he placed four workers on leave and fired 23 consultants connected to an alleged bribery scam in the city's technology office. In January 2008, he fired six employees of the Child and Family Services Agency after four children under the agency's supervision were allegedly killed by their mother. Three of the workers were later reinstated by an arbitrator.

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