BROWARD COUNTY, FL - The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) has filed a federal lawsuit targeting the state-funded, for-profit, Thompson Academy juvenile prison in Broward County, Fla. The suit was filed on behalf of children who have endured horrific physical and sexual abuse by staff at the facility and were intimidated by staff from reporting the abuses.
Youth Services International, Inc., the company which operates the Pembroke Pines facility, violated the constitutional rights of children at the facility by preventing them access to attorneys. The children were not allowed to have confidential phone calls with their attorneys and were questioned about their meetings with attorneys by the Academy’s director, Craig Ferguson, and other staff. Finally, they were coerced into signing statements ending or declining legal representation by the SPLC.
The lawsuit describes how children held at the facility are brutalized, choked and slammed by staff. At least one youth was sexually assaulted by a staff member. Even after the child reported sexual abuse, Thompson administrators allowed the staff member to have contact with the child, resulting in a second sexual assault.
“The State of Florida is paying Thompson Academy millions in taxpayer dollars to run a facility that abuses children and violates their constitutional rights,” said David Utter, Director of the SPLC Florida Youth Initiative. “Florida taxpayers should be furious that their money is being used to enrich private prison companies that harm children rather than build strong children and communities.”
Florida incarcerates children at nearly twice the rate of other states, and 80% of Florida’s juvenile prison beds are privately operated. The Florida Department of Juvenile Justice paid Youth Services International $4.3 million during the 2008-09 fiscal year to operate Thompson Academy, according to the Department. The facility can accommodate 154 male youths, ranging from 13 to 18 years of age. The company operates eight juvenile facilities in Florida.
“YSI ensures its ability to abuse children with impunity by denying youth access to lawyers who could help protect them,” said Vanessa Carroll, an SPLC attorney. Carroll noted that “when children are being abused and stripped of their rights as they are at Thompson Academy, it’s obvious that Florida must look for something other than private prison beds to help children involved with the juvenile justice system.”
The mother of the child who was sexually abused by a staff member spoke of the impact the abuse on her and her son: “I am devastated that I had my son taken away from me and placed in a facility that abused him and I could not do anything to protect him,” said Tara Bostick. “No child should ever have to endure something like this from a system that is supposed to help him.”
Facts about the lawsuit:
The Southern Poverty Law Center filed this federal lawsuit on behalf of children imprisoned at the state-funded, for-profit Thompson Academy, owned and operated by Youth Services International. These children have endured horrific physical and sexual abuse by staff and were denied their constitutional right to contact lawyers to seek relief from their abuse.
Suffer Abuse and Neglect
Youth have been subjected to repeated physical and sexual abuse perpetrated by guards that is ignored and encouraged through the negligence of the facility’s officials.
Thompson Academy staff have subjected children to brutal physical force on a regular basis: choking and slamming children head first into concrete walls and bending and twisting arms and fingers for infractions as minor as failing to stand up on command.
Children held at this for-profit facility live in hot and moldy living units that lack air conditioning. Children with asthma cannot stay in these units and are forced to sleep on the dirty floors of other living units.
Plaintiff D.B. is a 15-year-old boy who was incarcerated at Thompson Academy. He was sexually assaulted by a staff member on two occasions. D.B. reported the first assault, but the same staff member was later allowed to accompany D.B. to a dental appointment away from the facility where he sexually assaulted D.B. a second time.
Since the sexual assaults, D.B. has attempted suicide on three separate occasions by drinking bleach and attempting to hang himself.
Plaintiff D.L. is a 16-year-old boy currently incarcerated at Thompson Academy. D.L. was subjected to verbal and physical abuse by a staff member who slammed D.L. into a concrete wall, twisted his arms behind his back and slammed his head into a metal door.
Denied Constitutional Right to Access the Courts
When the plaintiffs in this case attempted to report their abuse to Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) attorneys, Thompson Academy staff questioned the youths about their meetings with the SPLC.
Thompson Academy staff, including the facility’s administrator, Craig Ferguson, told the youths that the SPLC would not be able to help them.
Ferguson asked a number of youth to sign or write statements saying they no longer wanted to meet with the SPLC.
These tactics of intimidation violate these youth’s constitutional right to free speech and to access lawyers and the courts.
Facts about YSI, Inc.:
State-Funded For-Profit YSI Facilities in Florida
The Department of Juvenile Justice has multiple contracts with Youth Services International that total $74 million.
These contracts are for Youth Services International’s operation of eight youth facilities in the state: Thompson Academy in Pembroke Pines, JoAnn Bridges Academy in Greenville, Santa Rosa Youth Academy in Holt, Broward Girls Academy in Pembroke Pines, Palm Beach Regional Juvenile Correctional Center in West Palm Beach, St. John's Juvenile Correctional Facility and St. John's Youth Academy in St. Augustine and Marion Juvenile Correctional Facility in Ocala.
Of the $74 million, the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice paid $4.3 million in the 2008-09 fiscal year for Youth Services International to operate Thompson Academy, according to state records.
Troubling History of Abuse Allegations at YSI Facilities
A state investigation of Forest Ridge Youth Services, an YSI facility in Iowa, found “appalling” conditions suffered by children incarcerated there.A counselor pleaded guilty to charges of sexual exploitation.
A teenage boy at Springfield Academy, a Youth Services International facility in South Dakota, was sexually assaulted by a correctional officer employed at the facility in 2006 and that YSI failed to take action. A Federal lawsuit is ongoing.
Children held at Chamberlain Academy, an YSI facility in South Dakota, were sexually abused by a counselor and filed suit in Federal Court.The children were also beaten and physically assaulted.
A youth held at YSI’s Charles H. Hickey School in Maryland during the 1990s filed a lawsuit that said YSI failed to address his concerns about his assigned roommate, who later raped him.