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Youth detention center overcrowded at time of attack

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By Henri E. Cauvin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 22, 2010

New Beginnings, the District's juvenile detention center in Laurel, had been overcrowded for days when a detainee attacked a staff member Sunday night and set off a disturbance that lasted about an hour.

Designed to hold 60 people, New Beginnings had been overcapacity for several days, according to a union official. On Sunday, 70 people were in custody, according to the union official, Tasha Williams, and a law enforcement source.

After staff from the D.C. Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services, which operates New Beginnings, signaled the end of recreation early Sunday night, some detainees balked. Three of them ran onto a roof of the building and two others refused orders to enter their living units, DYRS said in a statement Monday.

When the shift commander tried to defuse the situation, a 20-year-old detainee punched him in the face, fracturing the man's jaw, according to Williams, chair of the DYRS unit of the Fraternal Order of Police.

During the attack on the supervisor, an electronic key card was taken from him and other units at the facility were opened, according to Williams. Some of the detainees in those units began roaming the campus. Although no one escaped the compound, it was not until officers from Anne Arundel County and Maryland State Police responded that all of the youths were back in their units. D.C. police, including Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier, two assistant chiefs and a SWAT team also were on the scene.

Most or all of the youths involved in the initial incident were from a unit for detainees who are not participating in the full program at New Beginnings because they are awaiting placement in another facility, according to Williams. Their short-term status often makes them an especially difficult group to manage, Williams said.

"You can't sanction them because they're not in the program," she said.

Opened last year to replace the dangerous and decrepit Oak Hill compound, New Beginnings is the centerpiece of the juvenile justice reform effort launched by the administration of former mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) and continued by Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D). But the facility has faced criticism, some of it from staff, for being too small and too accommodating to the detainees.

Soon after New Beginnings opened, two escapes occurred. Security was bolstered and no escapes have been reported since. But the disturbance Sunday night will probably intensify scrutiny on DYRS, which is the subject of an extended class-action suit over care and custody of juvenile delinquents in the District.

The court monitor in the case tracks the number of people being held by DYRS at New Beginnings and the agency's short-term detention facility, the Youth Services Center in Northeast Washington. YSC, which is supposed to house no more than 88 juveniles, had as many as 156 late last year; that number has since fallen.

If it recurs, such crowding could complicate the city's efforts to end the lawsuit, known today as Jerry M. v. Fenty. Filed 25 years ago, the case has defined juvenile justice in the District and dogged one mayor after another. Over the past few years, the court has noted progress at the city's juvenile justice agency, but obstacles remain and crowding is one of them.

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