Short staffing and a lack of trust among them and a growing cell block gang have been identified as ingredients in an Aug. 11 disturbance at the DeKalb Regional Youth Detention Center, which holds violent teenage boys, an internal investigation confirmed.
The investigation found several officers had noticed increased gang activity and had picked up rumors that a disturbance — the third at the facility in 15 months — was being planned. But they did not share that information with the rest of the security staff because of fears “unethical staff members” would tell the teenage boys in custody, according to the report by investigator Casey Coggins. He did not elaborate on the “unethical staff” comment.
The report does not make any recommendations. Department of Juvenile Justice Commissioner Avery Niles, who was not in that job when any of the incidents occurred, told Chanel 2 Action News he is looking at several solutions, including limiting movement around the facility, education and other programs.
On Aug. 11, officers responded to the third riot in 15 months at the DeKalb YDC due to a volatile mix of youth, impulsiveness and teenagers who sometimes react with violence at the slightest affront such as a glance. In May 2011, the teenage boys did about $22,000 in damage to the facility. Then five months later, outside law enforcement officers were called to help lock down about 65 rioting teenage boys.
The most recent event, in August, was planned because one teenager had hit another in the head twice during a game called “heads up, seven up.” Heads up/seven up is a classic children’s game that calls for a participant to guess which of several possible players would have “tapped” him while his eyes were closed or covered. One boy was upset with how hard he was hit in the head while playing the game.
Niles this week declined The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s request for an interview, but he told Channel 2 Action News all three incidents happened because the boys were moved around the facility “too much” and that made it easy for a small group to start trouble.
“That goes into some security issues and we are on the process of tracking that to minimize that movement,” Niles told Channel 2.
Staffing also is a problem though that cannot be blamed on funding, he said.
Niles said it was difficult to find employees to work in the stressful and sometimes dangerous environment of a youth prison.
“We have to get out in the community and … find those individuals needing employment,” Niles said.
Fights are common in Georgia’s juvenile institutions where 90 percent of the teenagers held in them are “designated felons” accused of serious crimes that resulted in significant property damage or serious physical harm.
Details of the Aug. 11 incident are laid out in a 207-page report the AJC obtained, but identifying information like names and ages is removed.
The report says one of the instigators, a leader in the “savage da block” gang, had a problem with another boy.
The instigator told the investigator he twice hit a second boy in the head during a game of “heads up, seven up” days before the incident. The next day, the second boy retaliated, knocking out him out.
A third juvenile told the boy who was initially targeted, “if you hit him, I am going to riot with you,” according to the report.
Others saw it as a chance to boost their status in the “savage da block” gang, or to “get our rank up” in the gang.
The investigation said the detainees had been openly talking about the planned disturbance hours before it started. “Everyone involved was talking about who they were going to hit,” Coggins wrote about an interview with one boy.
Officer Calvin Poole told the investigator he could sense tension in air long before the disturbance and he felt the teenagers took the opportunity of only one officer in recreation.
Poole, alone, was assigned to shepherd about 18 juvenile offenders back to their cell blocks from the recreation yard.
Surveillance cameras in the unit, B4, captured the disturbance.
According to the report, a juvenile offender began moving up the line of teenagers waiting to return to the unit. When he got to the head of the line he punched one of the boys, knocking him out.
Then seven juveniles jumped four. And two of the seven also attacked two officers who were trying to stop the fighting.
According to an earlier report, three officers were hurt, the most serious an injured back. Ten teenage boys suffered minor injuries, many of them black eyes or bloody noses.
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