James Baker, the stocky recreation counselor at Oak Hill -- the District's maximum-security institution for delinquent youths -- remembers the day a few years ago when he saw an Oak Hill football player with a bottle of liquor during a game.
Baker was furious. He grabbed the bottle, slammed his forearm into the boy's chest and sent him sprawling. "I believe that was the first time I was able to knock a boy damn near out with his helmet on. I felt wonderful," said Baker.
Hitting the boy, he realized, was a violation of Oak Hill's rules. Still, so was the liquor.
"I deal with the problem first, and the rules second," Baker said.
Baker isn't alone. Every day, in small ways and large, Oak Hill's counselors routinely violate a court-imposed disciplinary code, which a judge wrote after hearing allegations of unjust punishments and physical abuse in the District's three juvenile institutions.
Some counselors are engaged in a kind of private war against the code, which prohibits any kind of physical punishment and requires hearings before a youth can be placed in isolation. Counselors say the code is unrealistic and an obstacle to maintaining control over the 150 delinquents at Oak Hill, many of whom have committed violent crimes.
The war has led to a serious disagreement between the staff and those who believe the court's rules are a way to create an atmosphere of justice at an institution with a legal mandate to rehabilitate the youths before they are allowed to return to everyday living. "The people who wrote those rules, the judges and officials downtown, did not take into consideration the need to do instant things to solve problems," said Edward Morgan, an Oak Hill counselor who said he has been injured five times while breaking up fights.
Baker put it this way: "How do you tell an accused murderer, 'Go to your room'? "
It does not appear to be a brutal war. Officials say physical abuse occurs less frequently than before the code was created, but it still happens: The city has reprimanded, suspended or sought to fire eight Oak Hill counselors since 1982.
For example, city officials have taken action after investigating the following allegations: One counselor locked a delinquent in his room for arguing with him, and then poured ammonia under the door, sending noxious fumes into the cramped cell and causing the boy to choke. A guard threw a milk crate at one juvenile's head, sending the youth to the hospital. The same guard forced another youth to walk in snow wearing only his pajamas.
More often, the casualties are the court's rules: Counselors frequently act without holding the required hearings, and youths are improperly locked up for such minor infractions as "banging on his room door" or "too much mouth," according to internal Oak Hill records.
Sharon Harrell, the city's chief investigator of abuse complaints at Oak Hill, said: "Staff feel that they can do virtually anything, short of something that leaves blood or fresh bruises . . . without serious fear that anything will happen to them."
In one month, June 1984, there were 128 "illegal" lockups, Harrell found in her investigations. Half of those, she said, were lockups that lasted longer than six hours. In that month, only nine hearings were held.
Harrell told her superiors about the private war at Oak Hill in a memorandum she wrote last year to the Department of Human Services, which runs Oak Hill.
"There is a whole other system out there -- totally outside the formal process" set down by the code, her memo said. "In the real Oak Hill, staff exercise disciplinary authority over residents with blatant disregard to fairness, the law or regulation and virtually untrammeled by administration."
Audrey Rowe, the commissioner of social services and the official who received Harrell's memo, said her office acts immediately if it hears about allegations of abuse. At the same time, she said, she is concerned about the staff's attitude toward the rules.
"Any situation where people are working against the rules . . . and feel that their hands are so totally tied that they are going to do whatever is necessary to subvert the system that's in place is real worrisome," she said.
Meanwhile, she said, the delinquents become cynical and see the institution as just one more place where the system is unfair. "They begin to say, 'Well, I'm not going to get any justice here and . . . when I go back out on the streets, I'm not going to get any justice there ,' " she said.
For Oak Hill, the question of discipline is part of a larger problem of how to manage and control the institution, which is located in Laurel, 20 miles from Washington. Recently, Rowe ordered Oak Hill officials to crack down on the availability of drugs, including marijuana, PCP and cocaine, which delinquents and counselors say is smuggled inside by visitors and staff.
As a juvenile facility, Oak Hill's mission is different than an adult prison. Youths cannot be held past their 21st birthday, and in practice are released much earlier. While the delinquents are there, Oak Hill is supposed to begin a rehabilitation process.
People like Diane Shust, a lawyer with the D.C. public defender's office who represents Oak Hill youths at the institution, say that goal is not being achieved.
"Part of the rehabilitative process should include teaching kids right from wrong, the fact that their grievances can be worked out fairly without resorting to violence or people getting hurt, the fact that you don't take the law into your own hands," she said.
Shust's agency filed the original lawsuit that led, in 1976, to the current disciplinary code. It was drafted by then-Chief Judge Harold Greene of the Superior Court, who acted after hearing allegations of physical and sexual assaults on youths at Oak Hill and the other two D.C. institutions for juveniles, Cedar Knoll and the Receiving Home.
Greene found that the institutions had no established system for punishing the delinquents, and put in place a system that specifically outlined both infractions and penalties. The code's harshest penalty is seven days in isolation for such violations as carrying a weapon or trying to escape.
The city adopted the code, but there was no enforcement mechanism. Two years later, Judge Gladys Kessler created an oversight arm that would investigate complaints and ensure that Greene's rules were being followed. The unit, called Project Hands, is run by Harrell.
When Rowe was hired in 1980, she made clear that she supported Greene's system, she said. But she quickly realized that some staff members deeply resented the court's intrusion. "What I couldn't get them to understand was that control by fear is not how you want to control a juvenile facility . . . . Their response to it was, 'We'll show you who's in control,' " she said.
Counselors still resent the rules. "We have no protection here," said Alphonso Burns, a veteran Oak Hill counselor. "We've been stripped of the power to use our own judgment." An Allegation of Abuse
When a counselor loses control, it can lead to abuse. That is what the city alleges took place Aug. 2, 1984.
According to city records and interviews, an 18-year-old youth got into an argument with his counselor, Radames Leon, who ended the argument by locking the boy in his room. Another staff member told official investigators that he overheard Leon threaten to hurt the boy; soon after, Leon poured ammonia under the door of the boy's room, the investigators reported.
The fumes began to fill the cell; the boy, choking, threw soap powder on the floor to stem the odor. Gasping for air, he banged on the window until it broke. "It made me sick. I couldn't breathe," he said in an interview.
Leon charged the youth with destruction of D.C. property. He was locked in isolation for six days while awaiting a hearing, a violation of the rules. When the boy finally received a hearing, he was not permitted to call some of his witnesses -- another violation -- and was found guilty, his lawyer said.
After officials looked into the case, Superintendent Rayford Myers recommended Leon be fired. Leon appealed the firing, denying that he poured ammonia under the youth's door and questioning the credibility of the two major witnesses. While the appeal is being decided, Leon continues to work at Oak Hill.
In a recent interview, he called the case against him "a whole bunch of lies." He said he has never used excessive force in disciplining juveniles.
Firings are difficult to make stick, city officials said. The city's personnel rules protect workers against unfair terminations and there is the fear of lengthy, and expensive, legal actions.
"They don't like to lose," Edward Mahlin, Oak Hill's deputy superintendent, said. "I've managed to fire three people since I've been here in 14 years. There are two of them still working here."
Oak Hill has 57 counselors, many of whom are long-time city employes. They earn between $18,000 and $23,000 annually, but frequently take home thousands of dollars in overtime because Oak Hill is understaffed.
Mahlin, for one, said he feels the overtime has led to stress and contributes to the tension. "I would certainly like to have an adequate staff so that I'm not working people who are so tired that they can't function at their best." The Lockups
Last month, on Sept. 21, night supervisor Ernest Galloway came to work and found that a counselor had locked up a juvenile in Oak Hill's special detention block, known as 10A, without following the proper procedures.
Galloway minced no words in a subsequent memo to Myers: "We all are aware that this is a violation of the disciplinary code as well as Court orders." Galloway said later that such violations occur frequently, "more than the court wanted."
Another supervisor, Leslie Cooper, disagreed and wrote a memo defending the lockup, calling it "a preventive step . . . an everyday practice whenever needed."
In some cases, counselors disguise their actions by using euphemisms, investigator Harrell said. One counselor confined four juveniles in isolation for three days, but called it "L.W.P." -- which she was told stood for "letter writing period," she said.
Harrell also cited examples of group punishments -- disciplining a large group for the misdeeds of one -- which are prohibited under the rules. Although she declined to discuss current cases, she recalled a complaint a few years ago from a boy at Cedar Knoll about "duck squatting."
Harrell learned that duck squatting is "a hideously painful position in which you put your forehead against a wall, squat on your haunches, but then have to rise up on the balls of your feet while keeping your forehead on the wall, which puts a cramp in the calf of your leg within about 30 seconds.
"Because somebody had thrown salt into somebody's hair in the dining room the whole cottage had to 'duck squat' for two hours," she said. Inside the Hearing Room
Of all the rules imposed by the courts, the hearing process seems to draw the most anger from Oak Hill counselors, perhaps because they must run the hearings themselves, acting as judges, prosecutors, juries and witnesses. The only outsider is a lawyer who represents the youths.
Last July 24, a panel of three counselors convened to hear the cases of six youths charged with plotting to escape and hiding a pair of scissors to use as a weapon in case they were caught.
The court was the large activity room in dormitory 7; the bench and witness box was a Ping-Pong table; the spectators were other counselors and this reporter. The chief witness was counselor Alphonso Burns, who looked at the accused youths and declared, "They're dead meat."
The "judges" heard testimony from Burns, who discovered the escape, and from the youths, most of whom admitted they knew of the plot but denied their own involvement. After two hours, they were found guilty of the escape attempt.
But Burns' confident demeanor turned to anger when Clarence Harris, the counselor who was acting as chief "judge," sentenced the boys to seven days in isolation for each offense. "The maximum I can give is seven days," Harris told him.
"It doesn't make any sense," Burns said, leaping to his feet. "I'm the one down here who's possibly going to get my throat cut."
Joseph Eccles, another judge, also protested Harris' decision. He started screaming profanities and banging his fist on the Ping-Pong table.
Everyone started talking at once.
The third judge, counselor Morgan, chimed in: "I've broken my hand, my thumb, busted my jaw, cracked heads" while restraining boys. It was the scissors that bothered him. "To hear about the threat of an assault on one of us doesn't sit well."
Burns urged Harris to place the youths in isolation for longer than the court-imposed limits.
He said there was no reason to worry about violating the rules because any appeal would come too late -- the boys would already have served their sentences. "You can't do that!" interrupted Shust, the lawyer representing the boys.
"Let's go for it," Burns countered.
Burns then proposed that the boys serve their time in Burns' unit, rather than the special isolation cottage. "Let them stay right here!" he insisted. "Right here!"
Harris tried to quiet the ruckus and end the hearing. Shust spoke up, "I'd like to say something to the panel. I've heard that a few of the boys were visited before the hearing by various counselors, who were choking them, slapping them around, threatening them . . . "
Burns broke in, shouting: "You say you're an advocate for the students? Why not also be an advocate for the staff? We need some help. This is a maximum security institution and it's treated like a playground!"
Harris decided that the boys would serve their time away from Burns, in special detention unit 10A. Getting Respect
Among the counselors at Oak Hill, one of the most outspoken critics of the disciplinary system is Baker, the counselor who saw the youth with liquor on the football field, got mad and knocked him down.
Baker said he has a special insight into how delinquents should be handled: He was one himself. Years ago, Baker said, as a teen-age gang member in Washington, he was convicted on an assault charge and served time in Cedar Knoll. Now 43, he says: "I think like they do. I think faster than they do. And the thoughts they're thinking, I've thought them ten thousand times."
Baker, who has worked in D.C.'s juvenile institutions for 17 years, walks the grounds, unafraid to display his strength or intimidating presence even in front of a visitor. He weighs more than 300 pounds, wears gold chains and has a black beard.
"I'm the person that you'll hear the best things about, and the bad things about," Baker said. "The kids respect me because I'm so strong."
One day recently, he exploded at several youths as they lounged on a picnic table top. "I'll break your face!" he boomed. He later said that he never allows his own children to sit on furniture.
Baker has been the subject of two formal abuse complaints this year. He denies both.
One incident took place Feb. 5. Baker saw a boy eating cookies in the gym, which is not allowed. He grabbed him and then allegedly dragged him to a nearby bathroom, hit him in the face and pushed his head against the wall. Baker disputes attacking the boy, saying he only knocked the food from the boy's hand.
"I would never in my life say I abuse anyone. But it was times that I had to physically restrain some guys," he said.
The constraints on counselors are among the reasons Baker says he feels pessimistic about the future of youths at Oak Hill. The rules do nothing to change their behavior, he said.
"Give me three years: Thirty percent of them will be dead. Forty percent of them will be in jail. And the rest of them will be standing on the street corner somewhere," he said.
Baker said the football player he knocked down is now at Lorton Reformatory, an adult prison. He added: "If we'd go back to some of the things that we used to do in the old days we would be a better institution."
About the old days, there is little disagreement among the staff. Back then, said counselor Joseph Eccles, "The only thing that they respected was a hard right. I hate to say that . . . That's the only thing they respected."