CHELTENHAM — They may have done something wrong, but the boys in the Cheltenham and Hickey juvenile detention facilities are still boys, and their parents worry every day that they could be hurt by the violence that’s plagued the state’s juvenile justice system.
A recent report by the U.S. Department of Justice, confirms the parents worst concerns: The system’s “history of violence” needs to be rectified. Guards are abusive, youths assault each other and boys get little help for their problems.
Juvenile Services Secretary Kenneth Montague is instituting reforms — sharply reducing Cheltenham’s population and opening new facilities. The Maryland General Assembly has mandated more — requiring the system to educate and reform its young offenders.
Two parents interviewed said the words of DJS hold very little weight. The parents described hopelessness, fear, misery and many late nights spent thinking about the safety of their teenage sons.
Erika Mills, of Anne Arundel County, had a child with a “horrific experience” at the Cheltenham Youth Facility in southeastern Prince George’s County.
Within the first week, she said, the 17-year-old detained for smoking marijuana was assaulted for not leaving his chair when told.
Kim Armstrong’s son spent five months at the Charles Hickey Facility in Baltimore County. The northeast Baltimore woman said her son described anarchy, and daily fighting. He was taught reading at a fifth-grade level and was badgered by teachers when he questioned their lessons.
Turf battles waged on the streets of Baltimore, Prince George’s County and the District of Columbia just continued at the school, she said, and many of the young offenders couldn’t wait to get back to the streets.
At Cheltenham, Acting Superintendent Jimmy Lewis said the youths need structure, and there have been improvements in the quality of programs offered juvenile offenders over the past 10 years.
School runs from 8:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. with English, math, social studies, science and reading as the curriculum. Teachers are certified by the Maryland Department of Public Education. Youths are served three meals and have some breaks throughout the day. Parents may visit on weekends from 1 to 3 p.m.
The detainees earn points for meeting requirements, but breaches of discipline mean deductions. The points go towards purchases at the commissary, a convenience store.
Some youth advocates found that emphasis on discipline to be a way of sugarcoating the greater problem of youth boredom at the facility.
“They had a lot of idle time when I visited,” said Cameron Miles, community outreach director for the Juvenile Justice Coalition. “I would suggest they be in school. . . . We have to challenge young people to improve their experiences at the facilities.”
Both Montague and the Maryland legislators have been working diligently to raise standards for the juvenile detention system to make it equivalent to the renowned system used in the state of Missouri.
“There are some good things going on in system. You can go to Western Maryland and see camps — they have what it is we’re trying to do,” said Delegate Bobby Zirkin, D-Baltimore County. “They are just succeeding. They’re set up for success; they have great people in great facilities.”