New security measures are being implemented to halt the high number of escapes from Oak Hill, the District's juvenile detention facility in Laurel, city officials announced yesterday in response to recent reports that 30 percent of the youths assigned there are listed as escapees.
More security guards will be hired, a sophisticated alarm system will be installed and private security guards on the compound have been empowered to detain fleeing youths.
Meanwhile, D.C. Council member H.R. Crawford, chairman of the committee that oversees funding for the juvenile detention facilities, called for an internal investigation into security procedures at the maximum-security facility, saying "there is no excuse for this high escape rate."
"This situation cannot be tolerated," Crawford wrote in a letter to the acting director of the Department of Human Services. "Many of these juveniles have very serious criminal records including repeated hostile, violent behavior."
According to internal documents obtained by The Washington Post, 60 of the 197 youths assigned to Oak Hill, including two youths charged with murder and a number charged with violent crimes, were listed as escapees on the official attendance log Thursday. In addition, top officials of the D.C. Youth Services Administration said there have been 110 escapes from the 20-acre compound since January.
The escape reports from the past seven months show a large increase over previous years and that the youths often escape by cutting holes in the fences, stealing staff keys or cars, or running away from staff members while on court or medical visits outside the compound. In one case, a number of staff members failed to assist another staff member who was wrestling with a fleeing youth. The youth got away.
Vernon E. Hawkins, acting commissioner for social services, said yesterday that reducing escapes was his "No. 1 priority" and he had ordered a number of immediate actions. He said 10 more security guards will be hired to patrol the facility's perimeters and additional security vehicles will be purchased.
In addition, Hawkins said two senior advisers from the Department of Corrections have been transferred to the youth services division to oversee security at Oak Hill and a sophisticated alarm system, including television monitors, will be placed on top of the fences within the next month to warn of escapes.
Hawkins also said he had instructed youth services officials to expedite plans already announced to hire 60 additional youth group leaders and told the private security guards on the compound yesterday that they are empowered to detain youths. Youth Services officials previously complained that the private security guards were allowed only to report escape sightings to Oak Hill guards, but not to capture the fleeing youths.
In his letter calling for an investigation, council member Crawford told Marion Jerome Woods, the acting director of the Department of Human Services, that he was "extremely concerned" about the high number of escapes. In particular, he said he was troubled by an apparent policy of imposing very limited punishment on those who escaped.
The Washington Post cited staff complaints that most juveniles who escape and are recaptured seldom spend additional time in custody as a result of the escape and discipline is limited. As a result, staff members said, a number of residents escaped repeatedly.
In addition, staff members voiced frustrations over a consent decree entered into by the city last year that limits the amount of time a student can be locked in his room to five days after committing a major infraction such as an escape.
"The youths who are allowed to successfully escape over and over without facing any negative consequences for their actions are being taught a destructive lesson that negates any rehabilitative efforts made by counselors and educators," Crawford wrote. "These youths are being taught, by their experiences at Oak Hill Youth Center, that they can indeed 'get away' with breaking society's rules and laws."
Crawford asked for a detailed accounting of the number of monthly escapes during the past 2 1/2 years and the criminal history of those who have escaped. About a quarter of those who are listed as escapees have been targeted by police as chronic offenders, according to police sources, and they often commit other crimes before they are recaptured.
Crawford also called for the temporary closing of the vocational "machine shop," the apparent source of wire cutters used to cut holes in the fences.