Four staff members at Oak Hill and Cedar Knoll, the District of Columbia's juvenile detention centers, have been assaulted by young inmates in the last four weeks, prompting concern about discipline and security at the institutions, according to city documents and officials.
"The events of this month raise the question, 'What has happened to the little bit of discipline we thought we had?' " wrote James E. Goins, the institutions' discipline monitor, in a Nov. 6 memorandum to Jimmy L. Wyatt, administrator of the two facilities.
The memorandum, a monthly discipline report that was obtained by The Washington Post, details ongoing problems with escapes, minor fights, break-ins, thefts and instances of marijuana use at the city-run facilities in Laurel, Md.
Goins said in an interview Monday that the increasing frequency of assaults on staff members is a new problem. In the previous six months, he said, only one or two assault cases involving staff had been recorded.
Three of the four staffers assaulted during October were injured severely enough to require medical treatment and to miss work, according to Wyatt.
On Oct. 6, a staff psychiatrist was beaten by three young men while in his Cedar Knoll office. Six days later, seven youths threw a blanket over an Oak Hill night counselor, beat him, took his keys and then made an unsuccessful attempt to escape.
On Nov. 2, a female counselor on her way to a night-shift job at Cedar Knoll was dragged into bushes by four youths who were forcing her to disrobe when she managed to escape. In the fourth case, a female Cedar Knoll employe was punched by a young woman but not seriously injured.
"Any time staff is attacked it is a very serious problem for us," said Nancy McAllister, acting administrator of the city's Youth Services Administration, which runs the institutions. She said her agency is "reevaluating" the 1-to-10 and 1-to-20 staff-to-resident ratios at Oak Hill and Cedar Knoll, respectively, to determine whether staffing shortages are causing part of the problem.
Wyatt said there are now 25 staff vacancies at the institutions. Included are the two superintendant jobs and 10 positions for "group leaders," whose responsibilities include supervising residential cottages.
These shortages force the institutions to spend about $800,000 in overtime, a necessity that leaves some staffers "more tired, less alert and less tolerant," Wyatt said. He said he hopes to have the jobs filled by mid-January.
"There is a lot of anxiety and a lot of concern," he said.
The incidents have prompted discussions about discipline and security procedures staff members must follow, he said. There also has been discussions about whether improved lighting is needed on the grounds and whether security guards should be hired at Cedar Knoll, which is a moderate security facility and lacks the guards and fences that the high-security Oak Hill has, he said.
Escapes from both institutions continue to be a problem, according to Goins' memo. As of Oct. 31, 19 youths were reported to be missing from Oak Hill and 30 from Cedar Knoll. Thirty-eight of those 49 escapes occurred during October.
Assaults on staff and escapes are long-standing problems at both facilities, "but they seem more pointed and more frequent than ever before," said Paul Silverman, the chief psychologist who has worked at the institutions for 13 years. Escapes and assaults point to the need for tighter discipline, he said, "but tightening up increases pressure on kids and that can erupt in violence. It is a matter of trying to maintain balance."