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Seeking Closure

Youth Advocates Travel to Cheltenham to Demand that the Troubled Facility Close its Doors

By Ericka Blount Danois | Posted 7/2/2003

At 10 a.m. on Saturday, June 21, though the wind whistled violently and the clouds hung eager with rain, close to 50 youth advocates--children, teenagers, and parents--boarded two yellow school buses leaving Baltimore, bound for the Cheltenham Youth Facility located more than an hour away in Prince George's County. Wearing red T-shirts that read CLOSE CHELTENHAM NOW and EDUCATE DON'T INCARCERATE, they prepared to rally in front of the facility to demand that it be closed.

Youth advocates have been begging the state to close Cheltenham for almost 20 years. The facility, a state-run detention center for boys ages 14 t0 18, is designed to hold 180 kids who are pending placement in a permanent state detention center, but it has been plagued by overcrowding, often housing more than 200 boys at a time. The facility has become notorious for deplorable conditions, violence, and an inadequate and insufficiently trained staff.

In 1872 Cheltenham was opened as the House of Reformation for Colored Boys, a private reform school. The state took over management of Cheltenham in 1937, after receiving reports of abuse. The state replaced some of the facility's old buildings and reformed the administration. For a while, Cheltenham seemed to improve. But in 1998, reports of problems and dangerous conditions arose again, and a fire inspector recommended that the facility be closed down due to fire hazards. Yet Cheltenham remains open, despite calls for its shuttering from parents and activists. The new Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center, set to open this fall, should help shoulder the burden for housing troubled boys. But advocates say Cheltenham's conditions are so bad that its closure can't wait for the new facility to open.

The day before the rally, Gov. Robert Ehrlich and state Department of Juvenile Justice Secretary Kenneth Montague Jr. announced that McGuire Cottage, a unit at Cheltenham that houses boys from ages 10 to 13, was being shut down. McGuire housed the facility's least aggressive kids and was one of the cottages with the least amount of problems, according to advocates and reports from the Independent Juvenile Justice Monitor, an advisory group to the governor's office.

But on this windy Saturday it was clear the closure of just one cottage would not satisfy many of the advocates who showed up for the event. As kids sat on the bus, many listening to music on their headphones, Cameron Miles, community outreach director for the Maryland Juvenile Justice Coalition, prepared them with a chant he came up with in the early hours of the morning: "One down four to go! Close Cheltenham! It doesn't rehabilitate, it only captivates! Close Cheltenham now!"

Charles Hopper, a 16-year-old member of the Baltimore Youth Congress, a group that advocates for educational issues in the area, was one of the kids who gave up his Saturday to make the bus trip to the rally.

"We have toured Cheltenham, and I don't think it is a stable place for youth," Hopper says. "There is chipped paint, small classrooms, there are fights that occur. I don't think it is rehabilitating youth."

Reforming the state juvenile-justice system was part of Ehrlich's campaign platform in 2002, when he said he would create a "child-first culture" by replacing the current system with one that puts more emphasis on treatment than on detention. Both Ehrlich and Montague were invited to the rally, but they told sponsors they were unable to attend due to scheduling conflicts. Ehrlich did not have a comment for City Paper on the Cheltenham matter. Montague was unavailable for comment, but his spokesman Lee Towers says the DJJ secretary will brief the state House Judiciary Committee in a public meeting on July 15 about recent events at Cheltenham and the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School in Baltimore County, which serves 262 troubled young people ages 14 to 17.

A resurgence of attention has been focused on Cheltenham recently, especially after a March 15 riot at the facility. Inmates set off the sprinkler system causing flooding, kicked and pried doors open, and three youths were hospitalized, according to reports from the Independent Juvenile Justice Monitor and coverage by The Washington Post. On the day of the riot, 232 juveniles were under the supervision of just 18 staff members.

"There was a special activity going on in the gym when the riot occurred," says Rudy Adams, assistant superintendent for the facility. "We did have the appropriate staffing. If we had a crystal ball, we could have prevented it. We had some difficult kids at the time, they took advantage of the situation."

The U.S. Department of Justice sent an investigative team to visit the facility soon after as part of an ongoing civil-rights probe into conditions at the facility. A spokesperson for the Department of Justice said the department cannot comment on the investigation because it is ongoing.

Adams says it is particularly difficult to control the population, currently 181 boys. One of the longstanding problems at the facility has been moving "hard to place" juveniles--those with severe mental-health or special-needs issues--into more appropriate facilities. As a result, many severely troubled kids stay for months at Cheltenham, a facility that was intended to hold kids temporarily.

"The department recognizes that overpopulation can lead to problems," according to Adams, who says Cheltenham has a new Confinement Review Unit that reviews inmates' files and expedites their placement in drug-treatment programs, mental-health programs, or other permanent facilities. He also says that although administrators are aggressively recruiting new staff, it is a difficult process because "these are not the highest-paying jobs."

By 11:45 a.m. , the buses from Baltimore turned onto Frank Tippett Road and into the Cheltenham facility. They were greeted by members of dozens of organizations from Baltimore, Prince George's County, and Washington who had traveled to take part in the rally. About 100 participants were given yellow construction hats, and they stood in a circle on the muddied green field about a quarter of a mile from Cheltenham's main gate. Walking in a circle holding hands they chanted, "Close Cheltenham now, books not bars! Educate don't incarcerate!"

Parents, advocates, and concerned citizens spoke about their personal experiences with Cheltenham as officials of the facility looked on from about 100 feet away.

"I think the rally is good, I think we are on the same page," said Lee Towers, spokesman for the state Department of Juvenile Services as he stood in front of the barbed-wire fences that surround Cheltenham. "Unfortunately, we need a facility of this type to serve Southern Maryland. We can't just close it. But we need to build a new facility. It is time for a new, more modern facility."

Parents at the rally echoed this sentiment as they asked for the closure and demolition of the facility, and for improved funding for community-based alternative programs.

"Eighty-one percent of the children here are African-American youth. There are alternatives found for white youth, but black youth are sent to this dangerous facility," said Miles, suggesting that white kids are disproportionately given alternatives to detention for the same offenses that are likely to land black kids in places like Cheltenham.

"In 2003, DJJ took responsibility for the care of my child," said parent Erika Mills, as she spoke from the podium at the rally. "When I visited my child at Cheltenham I saw a shattered person. I saw a child that feared for his safety and the safety of others in the facility." Mills said her 17-year-old son spent two and half weeks at Cheltenham for a nonviolent offense and that he was assaulted by another youth while there. She said he witnessed brutal fighting that staff members allowed to go on.

Laura Poindexter, who had her son arrested after he stole her car, said she also feared for the safety of her son while he was at Cheltenham. He served time there from March through April 2002, and June through July 2002, when he was returned for violating probation. "While he was asleep in the day room, he received two blows to his left eye," she says. "This happened at 2 p.m. , and the staff member on duty was asleep." The staff member was given suspension after an internal investigation, but resigned.

Officials say some of the overcrowding and staffing problems will be alleviated when the $45 million Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center on North Gay Street opens in October. The 144-bed facility was supposed to open in 2001 but has been delayed for various reasons, including construction problems. Not everyone is convinced it will open this fall as promised, or that the state should wait to shut down Cheltenham.

"The opening of the Baltimore facility has been delayed for so long, no one seems to care enough to make [it] happen," says Jim McComb, executive director of the Maryland Association of Resources for Families and Youth, a coalition of child and family agencies. "We can't wait for [it] to happen any longer. Planning was initiated about eight years ago to open that facility. There seems to be no urgency to open it."

As it started to rain advocates continued to chant and wave signs, and many women with their families pushed strollers as they chanted, "Close Cheltenham now!" Parents and leaders of the rally then walked to the front gate holding hands and presented the superintendent with their list of demands, which included closing additional cottages on the Cheltenham campus, appointing 24-hour, independent, on-site child-protection workers to the facility, reducing the number of minor parole violators who are returned to the facility, and allocating more money for sufficient and adequately trained staff.

"I voted for Ehrlich and I have a child in the juvenile-justice system," parent Dana Mills said. "Governor Ehrlich did not create this problem, he inherited it. But now it is time to fix it."

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