Florida NAACP Calls on the Department of Justice to Investigate the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice for Abuse, Misconduct, and Poor Management of Youth Detention Facilities

October 23, 2017

The Honorable Jefferson Sessions
Attorney General
U.S. Department of Justice
950 Pennsylvania Avenue
Washington, DC 20530

RE: Florida Department of Juvenile Justice

Dear Attorney General Sessions:

On behalf of the Florida State Conference of NAACP Branches and Youth and College Units (“Florida NAACP”), I write with a since of urgency to request that your Department expedite and complete, within three weeks, an investigation into systematic misconduct of the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice (“FDJJ”) in its management of youth detention facilities. The Department of Justice is instrumental in ensuring that the civil rights of all United States citizens are protected and strengthening those rights going forward.

Florida is home to approximately 20.6 million people, of which almost two million are between the ages of ten and seventeen. Florida’s Department of Juvenile Justice serves upwards of 15,000 youth each year in its twenty-one state detention facilities – also known as “Florida’s Fight Club.” Since 2000, twelve youths have died in these facilities while under the State’s care and supervision. In 2015, 17-year-old Elord Revoltes was beaten and stomped to death by a dozen other teens at the Miami-Dade Regional Juvenile Detention Center. Elord’s peers indicate this fatal beating was at the direction of officers, and is just one example of the horrid conditions youth in FDJJ are subjected to daily. Most disturbingly, the excessive force and systemic abuse is often outsourced and officiated by the individuals whom we trust to care for and foster our most vulnerable youth.

Recently brought to light in a six-part chronicle, the Miami Herald detailed exactly what the FDJJ’s philosophy of “tough love” entails. For example, when a youth offender misbehaves, officers and staffers at Florida’s juvenile detention centers entice other teens to swarm and beat their peers. Officers employ a strategy known as “honey-bunning” in which detainees are bribed with snacks in return for beat-downs. Officers officiate fights among the young detainees, refusing to break them up until it is too late. When abuse is discovered, great lengths are taken to cover up or falsify reports. Florida’s youth are frequently denied adequate medical attention, such as in the case of Andre Sheffield, a 14-year-old who died from bacterial meningitis while under the State’s care in February 2015. Andre was given Tylenol by a nurse after complaining for days to officers and staff of a headache and stomach pain. The nurse was fired from FDJJ after refusing to cooperate with the investigation into Andre’s death. Just as in Elord’s case, no one has ever been held accountable for Andre’s death.

Youth detainees suffer physical and sexual abuse, extortion, and medical neglect at the hands of undertrained and underpaid individuals, many of whom were fired or rejected from the adult prison system for the same offenses they now perpetrate on our unsuspecting youth. FDJJ makes common practice of offering positions to these officers without cross-checking the State’s own personnel records to see why the officer was discharged from the adult prison system. The Herald’s investigation uncovered evidence indicating that FDJJ routinely hires former corrections officers and law enforcement officers who were previously discharged for misconduct, smuggling contraband, and sexual offenses. These abysmal oversight and monitoring practices, as well as hiring practices directly contribute to the pervasive violence and fight club culture in Florida’s youth facilities.

FDJJ’s starting salary is $25,479.22, with private institutions in the state paying even less. Officers have not seen a pay raise in almost ten years, yet the national average starting salary for a youth detention worker is $38,619. The NAACP realizes that the FDJJ is ultimately constrained by the State’s budgetary process, the current pay scale, lax hiring standards, and lack of accountability. These factors have prevented FDJJ from recruiting, training and retaining qualified officers and staff to properly care for Florida’s youth.

The instances of children who have been irreversibly traumatized are too numerous and disturbing to recount. FDJJ detains these children with the goal of rehabilitation, but then returns them to the streets broken and beaten, with no one held accountable for the detriment. It is a disservice to our children, the State, and the nation to continue to turn a blind eye to the constant and systemic abuse taking place in Florida’s youth detention centers. The State of Florida has neither the desire nor the means to adequately address this problem. As such, the Florida NAACP respectfully requests that the Department of Justice commence an investigation into Florida’s Department of Juvenile Justice, pursuant to the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1997a.

We ask that you review the current conditions and practices in place in Florida’s juvenile detention facilities, including the physical and sexual abuse, the negligent hiring and training practices, the chronic understaffing, and lack of adequate medical care. We are confident that you will find not a series of isolated incidents, but rather a pattern and practice of systemic abuse and neglect across virtually every FDJJ institution in Florida. We ask that you begin to work closely, transparently, and expeditiously to rectify the ongoing injustices.

Adora Obi Nweze

Referenced Reports:

Fight Club: A Miami Herald Investigation into Florida’s Juvenile Justice System (October 2017)

Florida Comprehensive Accountability Annual Legislative Report: Florida Department of Juvenile Justice (2016)

cc. Leon Russell, Chairman, NAACP, National Board of Directors

Derrick Johnson, President and CEO, NAACP

Hillary Shelton, Director, Washington Bureau and Senior Vice President Advocacy and Policy, NAACP

Governor Rick Scott

Secretary Christina Daly, Florida Department of Juvenile Justice

Senator Bill Nelson, U.S. Senate, Florida

Rep.Val Demmings, U.S. House of Representatives, 10th District, FL

Rep. Fredrica Wilson, U.S. House of Representatives, 24th District, FL

Rep. Alcee Hastings, U.S. House of Respresentatives, 20th District, FL

Rep. Al Lawson, U.S. House or Representatives, 5th District, Florida

Perry Thurston, Chair, Florida Legislative Black Caucus

Members of the Florida Legislative Black Caucus

Ngozi Ndulue, Director, Criminal Justice Programs, NAACP

Branches and Youth Units of the Florida State Conference NAACP

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