WASHINGTON – Maryland and Washington law enforcement officials agreed Thursday to better notify neighbors of the problem-plagued Oak Hill Youth Detention Center in Laurel, where 10 detainees have escaped in the past year.
The agreement signed Thursday, between the D.C. Youth Services Administration and Maryland law enforcement officials, sets out policies and procedures for better notification of local police in the result of an escape from the controversial facility.
Thursday’s agreement does nothing to increase security at the facility, although District officials said they have hired more guards and installed surveillance cameras on the outside of buildings since last summer.
Three youths have escaped from the facility since July, when city and local officials met to discuss the problem of repeated escapes.
“I’m not pleased to be here,” Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Mechanicsville, said at the signing. “We’re here on the basis that we haven’t solved a problem.”
Under the agreement, Oak Hill is immediately responsible for notifying local police departments of an escape. Police would activate a signal device to alert the public of an escape, either through a siren or via a tape-recorded message to a community message system, and set up a command center to track the location, direction and description of the escapee.
“A mechanism for immediate notification is key,” said Laurel Police Chief Roy Gilmore.
The memorandum “delineates protocols on how we will interface with law enforcement in the event of an escape,” said Gayle Turner, of the Youth Services Administration.
Local groups have long complained about the failure to notify them of escapes. Their complaints led to the July meeting, to discuss how the facility could be more secure and how the community could be better notified of an escape.
In May, seven Oak Hill youths escaped through a hole in the fence. Another three escaped in November. One of the escapees has since been killed, but seven of the 10 are still at large.
Ray Szyperski, board member of the Maryland City Civic Association, said he only found out about the May escape four hours after the fact, when he heard helicopters flying over his house.
Szyperski said living close to the facility, “makes me curious, suspect and fearful for myself and my neighbors.” He wants to see quicker action from local enforcement and hopes the new agreement will aid in notifying residents of an escape.
Despite continuing concerns about the facility, Hoyer called the agreement “a very positive step forward in improving communication, and by extension the relationship, between Oak hill, local law enforcement and the surrounding communities.”
Oak Hill admitted 1,234 youths from May 1 to Nov. 30. On an average day, 120 youths are at the detention home, and 60 to 70 percent of them are awaiting trial, Turner said.
The D.C. Mayor’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Youth Safety and Juvenile Justice Reform recently recommended closing Oak Hill and replacing it with smaller facilities.