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Files reveal dozens of violations by firm set to manage Arkansas' youth prisons

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Files reveal dozens of violations by firm set to manage Arkansas' youth prisons

Picture of Amanda Curcio
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
Friday, May 17, 2019

An Indiana company set to manage Arkansas' five state-run youth prisons was cited for dozens of violations in Michigan, where it has managed two juvenile lockups and an all-girls residential center for years, records show.

In some instances, facility staff members injured children, called girls "black b***hes," fell asleep on duty and escalated situations leading to the use of physical restraints, according to reports filed by Michigan officials between 2012 and 2018. These officials also determined that lockup workers' failure to conduct routine checks on a suicidal teen left alone in his cell was the "proximate cause" in his death, federal court documents show.

Youth Opportunity Investments LLC of Carmel, Ind., didn't disclose those violations to Arkansas officials when it submitted its proposal to take over the state's juvenile lockups.

In an emailed response to questions from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, the company said it met the state's bid requirement that it not have more than 12 "citings of deficiency" in its contracts in other states.

The company is expected to begin managing youth prisons in Dermott, Harrisburg, Lewisville and Mansfield this summer through a $15.8 million, one-year contract. The state's juvenile lockups house youths who've been adjudicated as guilty and committed to the custody of the Arkansas Youth Services Division by a circuit judge.

Lawmakers are scheduled to review the contract for final approval this morning during an Arkansas Legislative Council meeting.

Returning the Arkansas facilities to private control is part of Gov. Asa Hutchinson's promised plan to overhaul the state's often-troubled juvenile-justice system. Having all facilities under a single provider will ensure that children receive consistent and quality services, no matter where they're jailed, and will help them reintegrate in their communities after their release, the governor has said before.

The state required that a bidder for the management contract have a clean five-year history of running similar facilities. Specifically, a bidder could not have had any contract terminations elsewhere attributable to "non-performance" and have an audit history with no more than a dozen citations for poor performance.

The Arkansas contract awarded to Youth Opportunity raises the daily bed rate of the lockups to $236, state procurement records show.

Before the state took over management of the lockups in January of 2017, the Youth Services Division paid two Arkansas nonprofits that ran the sites about $145 a day per child for more than a decade.

DISPUTED VIOLATIONS

Youth Opportunity got the contract after challenging the state's original intent to award the contract to for-profit Nevada-based Rite of Passage, which already operates Arkansas' largest youth prison in Alexander in a separate three-year, $34.1 million deal.

In March, Youth Opportunity attorneys sent a protest letter to the state procurement office, calling out Rite of Passage's rocky track record in Colorado.

In 2018, Colorado officials terminated one of its contracts with Rite of Passage because the "health, safety, or welfare of persons receiving services may be in jeopardy," according to records.

Colorado complaint reports filed in federal court also show that Rite of Passage staff members have injured children with improper restraint techniques, failed to file child abuse reports, had inappropriate relationships with inmates, and didn't track the administering of inmates' opioid pain pills.

State procurement director Edward Armstrong sided with Youth Opportunity and disqualified Rite of Passage because of its problems in Colorado.

Rite of Passage also has had issues running the Arkansas Juvenile Assessment and Treatment Center since it took over the 120-bed facility in 2016. For instance, video surveillance shows guards attacking a subdued inmate in 2016, and last year, law enforcement officials investigated an ex-guard in the repeated sexual assault of a young inmate.

But Michigan's records indicate that Youth Opportunity doesn't explicitly meet the bid requirement of exceeding more than 12 violations per contract since 2014.

The company's Muskegon River Youth Home -- both the female and male programs -- and the Muskegon River Pathway of Hope sites have a total of 84 written violations between 2014 and 2018, according to records. The violations are contained in "special investigation reports" and routine inspections reports.

In those cases, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services required the facility to devise a corrective action plan and didn't take further action against the company.

The information contained in those reports "clearly shows that [Youth Opportunity Investments] purposefully misled the State of Arkansas in order to hijack the state procurement process from the rightful winner," said Michael Cantrell, Rite of Passage's executive director.

Youth Opportunity, in its emailed statement to the newspaper, said "any assertation" that it doesn't meet Arkansas' requirements is a "total and inappropriate statement of facts."

"Over the course of the years, we have had multiple contracts of various lengths regarding those facilities [in Michigan]," the statement read. "Never have we had more than 12 written citations of contract violations during the course of any of the contracts to run those facilities."

Amy Webb, a spokesman for the state Department of Human Services, said the Youth Services Division counted each Michigan report as one citation, even if multiple violations were contained in a single report.

Webb said problems can occur at juvenile facilities because they are "inherently difficult to run," but division officials still expect providers to keep children safe and to respond proactively if incidents occur.

"What's important is how a vendor responds when there are issues -- do they act swiftly, take the issue seriously, and take the necessary steps to try and ensure a similar incident does not happen again?" she said.

"That's what we want to see. Had [Youth Opportunity Investments] not taken the citations it received seriously, then one would assume they would have lost contracts. We have no information that happened."

[This story was originally published by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.]