Kids Behind Bars: Chaos, violence and neglect plague youth prisons and detention centers

Published: Nov. 14, 2023 at 1:58 PM EST|Updated: Nov. 14, 2023 at 4:31 PM EST
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CINCINNATI (CINCINNATI ENQUIRER) - Ohio’s juvenile prisons and detention centers are supposed to be safe places, where the state’s most troubled children are sent for what might be a last chance to turn their lives around before adulthood, our media partners at the Cincinnati Enquirer reported.

But instead of finding refuge from crime and mayhem, kids in the system often encounter a world more dangerous than the one they left behind.

Violence erupts without warning, leaving victims bloodied and scarred. Serious injuries and medical conditions, sometimes even deaths, go unnoticed or unreported for hours. Rival gangs calling themselves the Heartless Felons and the Gangster Disciples stir unrest and pit kids against one another and against guards. Lockdowns last so long that children urinate in water bottles and defecate in the corner of their cells because they can’t leave to use a restroom. And the guards, struggling every day to maintain order, are overwhelmed, understaffed and in fear for their own safety.

Jun 29, 2023; Lancaster, Ohio, USA;  Three teenage girls shoot hoops in the barbwire enclosed...
Jun 29, 2023; Lancaster, Ohio, USA; Three teenage girls shoot hoops in the barbwire enclosed courtyard, at Multi-County Juvenile Detention Center, while a guard stands watch, right.(Courtney Hergesheimer/Columbus D | Cincinnati Enquirer)

Those findings are based on an eight-month investigation by The Enquirer, The Columbus Dispatch, The Akron Beacon Journal, The Canton Repository and USA TODAY’s network of Ohio newspapers. Journalists interviewed more than 100 kids, parents, employees, judges and experts, filed more than three dozen public records requests and reviewed hundreds of pages of documents.

Because chaos is so rampant, the investigation found, local juvenile detention centers and the state’s juvenile prisons consistently fail in their most basic mission: to provide a safe environment for young offenders while trying to turn them into productive members of society.

Whether measured in dollars or lives, the cost of that failure is enormous.

For public safety, it means almost half of all incarcerated kids end up returning to a youth or adult prison within three years after their release. And those who don’t return are six times more likely than the rest of the population to die an early death.

For taxpayers, it means spending more than $100 million a year to support a system that kids, parents and current and former employees say does more to prepare incarcerated children for adult prison than for life on the outside.

For children and their families, it means enduring broken bones, paralysis and even the death of a child, all of which they blame on neglect and violence experienced in Ohio’s juvenile detention facilities.

“You cannot trust these people with your children,” said Consandra Wright, whose 17-year-old son, Robert Wright Jr., was found dead in his cell at the Circleville Juvenile Correctional Facility in 2020.

“They might not make it out.”

Violence, staff shortages plague juvenile lockups

Officials at the Department of Youth Services, which runs Ohio’s three juvenile prisons, say they’re doing their best under difficult circumstances.

It is, undeniably, a hard job. Most of the roughly 500 kids in Ohio’s three juvenile prisons are there because they committed crimes serious enough they would have landed in an adult prison for years if they’d been older. More than 60% are locked up because of violent acts such as assaults, rapes, kidnappings or homicide.

The juvenile system’s mission is to protect the public and keep teens out of the adult system. The state takes on the role of parent to kids in custody. That’s why juvenile prisons employ teachers, counselors, mental health professionals and others who specialize in the care and treatment of at-risk children.

“The goal is to help youth become productive members of their communities,” said Amy Ast, director of the Department of Youth Services, in a written statement. “Every service we provide is with this in mind.”

Yet that’s not happening today for hundreds of kids in the system.

Staff shortages, including at least 140 open positions for guards and other jobs, have limited the state’s ability to provide effective education, counseling and supervision. The employee turnover rate in Ohio’s juvenile prisons jumped 77% from 2021 to 2022, leaving 1 in 6 jobs vacant. That includes 1 in almost 5 teacher jobs and almost half the behavioral health jobs.

At the same time, violence is escalating. The number of violent acts in the state’s juvenile prisons jumped 58% between 2020 and 2022, making them more dangerous places not only for kids but also for employees.

Between January and May this year, 475 juveniles committed acts of violence, including assaults on 226 juveniles and 83 staff members. At least 19 kids required emergency room treatment.

More than a dozen current and former state youth prison workers said they fear the danger that awaited them on each shift.

“I say a prayer every day before I go into work,” said a juvenile prison employee, who asked not to be named because of fears of being disciplined for speaking publicly. “It’s a bad situation all the way around.”

In May, a fight that lasted 10 seconds at the Franklin County Juvenile Detention Center in Columbus left 15-year-old Damarion Allen paralyzed from the chest down. Last October, a teenager at the Indian River youth prison in Massillon struck a guard, David Upshaw, in the head with a computer tablet, knocking him unconscious and leaving him with vertigo and other health problems.

Sometimes, the violence spreads, triggering one fight after another as guards struggle to regain control. A 12-hour riot broke out at Indian River about a week after the attack on Upshaw, and a series of fights in April at Hamilton County’s juvenile detention center resulted in injuries to both guards and kids.

Even top prison officials aren’t safe. Indian River Superintendent Charlie Ford, the juvenile system’s equivalent of a prison warden, got punched in the face in August by one of the kids in his own prison.

The risk of violence is so well known within the juvenile system that when Hamilton County Juvenile Court Judge Kari Bloom sends a child to a Department of Youth Services prison, she always gives them the same warning:

“You will have to find a way to keep yourself safe.”

Sep 20, 2023; Columbus, Ohio, USA;  Damarion Allen, 15, gives his youngest brother Woody, a...
Sep 20, 2023; Columbus, Ohio, USA; Damarion Allen, 15, gives his youngest brother Woody, a ride on his wheelchair, in the back of their Linden home. Damarion was paralyzed from the chest down on May 7, 2023, inside the Franklin County Juvenile Intervention Center. (Courtney Hergesheimer/Columbus Dispatch | Cincinnati Enquirer)

‘It’s my new life. I gotta get used to it,’ paralyzed teen says

Damarion Allen didn’t make it to a juvenile prison. The 15-year-old from Columbus, who pleaded guilty to two felonies, was awaiting a transfer to prison at Franklin County’s juvenile detention center May 7 when he exchanged words with another kid.

Damarion, an athlete who played football and lacrosse, squared up immediately, ready to fight. The other kid clenched his fist and prepared to throw a punch, but Damarion rushed him first. The two grappled, and both crashed to the floor.

Damarion’s head hit the floor hard. His body immediately went limp.

It was over in 10 seconds.

Surveillance cameras captured the scene as guards rushed in to separate the boys. Though Damarion wasn’t moving, the guards treated him as if he were still a threat, lifting him and hauling him down several steps to his cell. They lost their grip and dropped him, face first.

At that point, one of the guards questioned whether Damarion could walk. “No, he can walk,” said the shift supervisor, Talia Sumney.

“Get him in his room, no matter what it takes,” Sumney said. “We need to use force.”

Damarion’s legs dragged on the floor as the guards pulled him toward his cell. Damarion begged the guards to put him on his back, saying his neck hurt and he couldn’t walk.

“We are not putting you on your back,” Sumney told him.

Once they got Damarion in his cell, Sumney and a nurse laid him on his back. They poked his belly and lifted his legs, asking him questions about what he could feel.

Then Damarion asked a question. “What if I’m paralyzed?”

Damarion’s neck and spine were broken. He never regained the use of his legs.

An internal investigation found problems with the staff’s handling of the incident, both before and after the fight. The investigative report, obtained by The Dispatch through a public records request, said Damarion, by court order, was supposed to be kept away from other youth during a quarantine period before his transport to a Department of Youth Services facility.

After the fight, investigators said, Sumney and a guard, Latashia Lewis, violated their American Red Cross training and used improper force on Damarion, who was not resisting when guards dragged his limp body to his cell. Both were placed on administrative leave.

Damarion now uses an electric wheelchair and can’t urinate without a catheter. At home in Columbus, he still wears a court-ordered ankle monitor to track his movements, which are now limited to where his wheelchair will take him. He said his “happy place” is the grueling physical therapy sessions that remind him of football workouts.

“It’s my new life,” Damarion said. “I gotta get used to it.”

His mom, Mary Washington, said she worries constantly about her son and the physical and financial toll his injuries have taken on their family. She wants a bigger house with wider doorways for Damarion’s wheelchair. She lacks basic necessities to care for him, such as a shower chair. And she relies heavily on her four other children to help feed, clothe and bathe Damarion every day.

“Now my future looks like taking care of my son for the rest of his life,” Washington said.

Dead for more than 5 hours before she was found

Not every kid comes home from Ohio’s juvenile prisons and detention centers.

Unlike in the adult jail system, local juvenile centers aren’t required to report deaths in custody or serious incidents to the state. But this investigation found two deaths since 2020.

Alana Richardson, a 17-year-old single mom, ended up at the Central Ohio Youth Center in Marysville in January after she got into a fight with her boyfriend over $30 and scuffled with police officers.

Richardson had a serious heart condition, Long QT Syndrome, which could trigger an irregular heartbeat. When she was 12, surgeons implanted an internal defibrillator that could shock her heart back into a normal rhythm.

Sep 14, 2023; Urbana, OH, USA; Roxanne Gillenwater hugs her one year old granddaughter,...
Sep 14, 2023; Urbana, OH, USA; Roxanne Gillenwater hugs her one year old granddaughter, Brielle, who she cares for, at the gravesite of her daughter, Alana Richardson, 17, who died in January 2023 while in custody at the Central Ohio Youth Center in Marysville.(Courtney Hergesheimer/Columbus Dispatch | Cincinnati Enquirer)

It’s not clear whether she complained about feeling ill while at the center. Her mother said girls incarcerated with her daughter told her she’d been sick, but authorities said she never mentioned it to them.

Around 6 a.m. Jan. 14, a guard brought Richardson breakfast in her cell, but she said she wasn’t hungry. A short time later, she was offered a shower but declined.

According to the detention center’s records, that was the last time anyone spoke to her.

A guard passing out snacks found Richardson dead on her bed at 3:25 p.m.

The Union County coroner’s office concluded she died between 7 a.m. and 10 a.m. and blamed her death on her heart condition. That means she was dead for at least five hours and 25 minutes before anyone realized it.

During those hours, guards at the detention center were required to do a wellness check on her every 15 minutes. According to the guards’ log sheets, they did those checks 26 times between 10 a.m. and the discovery of her body at 3:25 p.m. No one reported anything out of the ordinary.

An internal investigation concluded everyone did their job, but Richardson’s mother, Roxanne Gillenwater, doesn’t believe it. She wants to know how someone could look in on her daughter that many times without noticing anything was amiss.

Gillenwater said the juvenile system failed not only her daughter, but the baby girl she left behind.

“Why didn’t they check on my daughter?” she said. “She’s a child, and she was there for a mistake and a fight she had with her boyfriend.

“She didn’t deserve to lose her life.”

Consandra Wright, who lives in the Cincinnati suburb of Mount Healthy, has been asking similar questions for three years about the death of her son, Robert Wright Jr., who died at the Circleville Juvenile Correctional Facility on Aug. 31, 2020.

The coroner concluded his death was caused by amphetamines and a congenital heart condition.

But his mom said there’s more to the story. While serving time at the facility, she said, her son complained for months about chest pain but never received adequate medical attention.

An internal investigation found that on the night he died, the guards assigned to check on Robert twice an hour had fallen asleep. It also found employees were slow to call for medical help when they realized he was unresponsive and that few, if any, were certified to perform CPR.

Some employees involved got suspended, but no one was fired.

“They don’t care,” said Wright’s mom. “They are not responsible. If you’re a regular person, you cannot fight them.”

Consandra Wright holds a necklace with a photo of her son, Robert Wright, on Tuesday, Sept....
Consandra Wright holds a necklace with a photo of her son, Robert Wright, on Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2023 in Cincinnati. Robert passed of an apparent drug overdose while incarcerated at Circleville Juvenile Correctional.(Carter Skaggs/The Enquirer | Cincinnati Enquirer)

‘They’re building monsters in there’

Supervision is a problem because staffing is a problem. But it’s not just the guards who are short-handed.

Ohio juvenile facilities also need more teachers, counselors and nurses to provide the kind of intensive services the kids need. The children in prisons may be the same age as middle school and high school students, but they are not typical teenagers.

Nearly 3 out of 4 are signed up for mental health services. Almost half struggle in some way with reading, writing or other classroom subjects.

“Some of these kids don’t even know how to tell time, and I think that’s pretty sad,” said one guard, who asked to remain anonymous to avoid discipline for speaking publicly.

Because of the shortage of teachers, juveniles in custody often receive a packet of worksheets, similar to “blizzard bags” given to kids on snow days, instead of classroom instruction.

“I don’t really see how their educational needs are being fulfilled,” said a former supervisor with the Department of Youth Services, who also asked not to be named. “It’s not really instruction.”

He said the kids often ignore the schoolwork and sometimes scribble “ridiculous stuff” on the packets and turn them in. “I don’t even know if the teachers read them,” the former supervisor said.

Read the full report: Find a summary and link to each part of investigation into Ohio’s youth detention facilities.

Patricia Julian, whose 17-year-old son has been in a juvenile prison for more than a year, said the hands-off approach to education also applies to mental health care. She said her son, who is not being named to protect his privacy, has dealt with mental health problems, which included violent outbursts at home, paranoia and erratic behavior.

Julian said her son’s problems could be connected to his father’s schizophrenia, but she said prison officials didn’t take her concerns seriously. Instead of medication or treatment, she said, they gave him worksheets that encouraged him to better understand and change his behavior.

“It’s not a therapeutic program,” said Julian, of Fostoria.

Amy Borror of the Gault Center, a national advocacy group for juveniles, said a large percentage of incarcerated teens should be receiving mental health services. Without the help, she said, the state is only “warehousing them.”

“They’re going to come out worse than they went in,” Borror said.

Julian said her son didn’t get the treatment or medication he needed during either of his first two stints in juvenile prison. The result, she said, was continued erratic behavior, which led to his third and most recent incarceration.

This time, she said, he’s been placed on medication and his behavior has improved. She said it’s the help he should have received from the beginning. Instead, she said, he was immersed in Ohio’s juvenile prison system, where others assaulted him and recruited him for a gang.

“I feel like I lost my son in there. I just pray that one day I can get him back,” Julian said. “They’re building monsters in there. My son’s not a monster, but some kids come out from the trauma of being in there and do things that they never would’ve thought to do.”

Isolation in Ohio youth detention centers leads to feeling ‘like an animal’

The state chronically fails to hire enough officers to cover all the work posts. In response, the Department of Youth Services changed its policy to keep kids behind locked doors for extended periods.

Nate Balis, director of the juvenile justice strategy group for the Annie E. Casey Foundation, said locking children in their rooms during waking hours makes the prison less safe. “If a facility is forced to keep kids locked in their rooms, then there are too many kids in that facility per the number of staff working there.”

Solitary confinement is psychologically damaging, studies have found. And in juvenile prisons, that damage leads to anger, resentment and more violence.

One teen who was locked up in Franklin County said he started punching the walls while in solitary. “You go insane in there real quick,” said the teen, who asked not to be named to protect his privacy.

Sometimes, facility lockdowns last so long that just getting kids to the restroom is a challenge. Providing bathroom breaks for 22 people in a housing unit can take two employees up to 90 minutes.

And if enough guards aren’t available, they don’t go to the restroom at all. That means kids in cells without toilets urinate and defecate in whatever is available: water bottles, bags, containers, anything they can find. Sometimes, they go on the floor of their cells.

Abdifatah Ali, a Columbus teen who left Indian River in July after serving time for felonious assault, said he experienced long periods of separation while he was incarcerated and had to make do with what he had in his cell because he didn’t have a toilet.

How did that make him feel? “Like an animal,” he said.

The guards don’t like it any more than the kids do. Some kids save their urine in a container and throw it at the guards. It’s known as “splashing” and is considered an assault.

“We got to get them out to use the restroom because we don’t want them to piss in a cup and throw it at us later,” said an Indian River employee, who asked not to be named.

Separation hours, as they’re known in the prisons, nearly doubled from 2020 to 2022. The Department of Youth Services leadership authorized a new policy in May that permits separation hours anytime a housing unit is below minimum staffing, which happens weekly.

Leah Winsberg, an attorney with the Children’s Law Center, warned that solitary confinement can be especially harmful for juveniles.

“Numerous studies show the long lasting and often devastating consequences of solitary, including emotional and psychological harm, trauma, and suicidal thoughts,” she said. “Because youth are still developing, these effects are even more detrimental, and this practice becomes ineffective and potentially counterproductive.”

The kids who rioted at Indian River in October 2022 said they did it because of the lockdowns. They snatched keys from a newly hired guard, broke into classrooms and storage areas and armed themselves with tools, pots, pans and metal rods.

“We just got tired of it,” said Malik Boston, who said he started the uprising. “We were fighting because we felt like we had nothing to lose.”

The riot lasted about 12 hours and caused $265,000 in damage. It ended when a SWAT team in full riot gear swooped in with pepper spray, shields, gas masks and zip ties to subdue the teens.

Ast, the department director, described the incident as a disturbance, not a full-blown riot.

The uprising showed what can happen when several of the juvenile system’s shortcomings converge. In this case, Indian River regularly failed to have enough employees to cover work stations. So, the prison kept children behind locked doors, which angered them, and they took advantage of an inexperienced guard to start the uprising.

The new guard, Carl Roehlig, said he froze when one of the boys grabbed his keys. “I was startled, a little dizzy and a little scared I guess, being new,” he told investigators.

Because of the high turnover rate, the Department of Youth Services is constantly trying to hire new guards, whose starting pay is $22 an hour.

But many of the new hires quit after just months, or even days, on the job. The combination of long hours and high risk scares off many of them. The department leaders require overtime of the employees who stick with the job.

Overtime costs climbed 36% from 2020 to $8.43 million in 2022. One guard logged an average of 27.5 hours of overtime each week for a year, meaning he worked nearly 68-hour weeks.

“After three 16-hour shifts, you’re a zombie,” said a former juvenile prison employee who quit in August.

Assaults injure kids, guards

A week before the Indian River riot, on Oct. 18, David Upshaw was working second shift as a guard, checking on kids locked in their rooms. The 60-year-old retired police officer and Army veteran said he took the job because he wanted to give back to the community through mentoring.

As Upshaw walked from cell to cell, Demetrice Taylor, 19, snuck up behind him and struck him. Taylor had rigged the door lock to his cell, so he could slip out.

When Upshaw fell to the floor, Taylor took his keys and let three other kids out of their cells. It took several hours for guards to round them up. Taylor is now serving a minimum of five years in adult prison for felonious assault, escape, aggravated rioting and vandalism.

Upshaw, who thought he had a good relationship with Taylor, still doesn’t know why he attacked him.

“It happened so quickly,” he said.

Upshaw never returned to work. He suffers from vertigo and uses a walker to steady himself. He can no longer play catch with his grandson or drive his new pickup truck. His wife, Patricia, said some days he can’t get out of bed.

“This is the state’s fault,” Patricia said.

She said her husband was working alone and that his “man down” alarm, which all guards wear, didn’t work properly, so he couldn’t signal that he needed help. And once help arrived, she said, his supervisors wanted him to drive himself to the hospital.

Chris Mabe, president of the Ohio Civil Service Employees Association, the guards’ union, said state workers care about their jobs and the kids.

“That’s why they’re still there. But much like every job, everyone has a breaking point. Something has to give.”

Though the motive behind Upshaw’s assault isn’t known, guards, kids, parents and others say the gangs wield power in the juvenile prisons by manipulating and intimidating kids and guards.

Patricia Upshaw looks to David Upshaw as he takes a small break during a walk in their Copley...
Patricia Upshaw looks to David Upshaw as he takes a small break during a walk in their Copley neighborhood on Friday, Sept. 22. David, a youth prison guard, was attacked by an inmate at Indian River Juvenile Correctional Facility in Stark County in October of 2022 and is still recovering.(Lisa Scalfaro | Cincinnati Enquirer)

New guards, especially, are vulnerable, according to veteran staff members. They say gang members pressure new guards to bend or break the rules to bring in fast food, cellphones or even drugs.

New kids face the same coercion. The gangs, including the Heartless Felons, the Head Busters and the Gangster Disciples, make contact almost as soon as kids arrive, giving them a choice to either join a gang or be targeted by it. Those who resist are assaulted, get their food stolen and are blocked from using the pay phone.

“You either get in or you take it,” said Patricia Julian, the parent whose son struggled with mental health issues.

After getting jumped by gang members several times, Julian said, her son joined a gang. Julian said her son told her he had no choice.

Gang leaders direct members to do their bidding. “If you have rank in the gang, you don’t have to participate in assaults or other activity,” said a former prison employee. “You can order others to do it.”

One such gang “hit” left a 15-year-old boy at Indian River with a broken jaw in September. The injury was so severe that the boy required surgery. He returned to Indian River with his jaw wired shut, held in an otherwise vacant wing of the prison, away from the rest of the population.

His father, who is not being named to protect his son’s identity, said gang members attacked his son because he was using a phone after they told him he couldn’t. It was the third time he’d been assaulted, his father said.

The father said the Department of Youth services didn’t call him until almost a day after the attack. A state employee told him his son was out of surgery and would be OK.

“I’m like, ‘What are you talking about?’” his father said. But trying to get information from the prison about his child is always a mess, he said. Information about his son’s follow up medical appointments comes from the pediatric hospital, not the prison system, he said.

“For a place that’s so understaffed, there sure is a spiderweb of people to go through to get information about my son,” he said.

Big costs, poor results

What happens inside Ohio’s juvenile prisons and detention centers matters not only to the kids who are there, but also to the rest of society.

Ohio taxpayers spend about $236,000 to incarcerate one juvenile for a year. The purpose of that investment is to change those kids’ behavior, to keep them from committing more crimes and to make them productive citizens.

Almost half the kids who pass through Ohio’s juvenile system get into more trouble within three years of their release: 21.9% land back in the juvenile prison system and another 22.3% end up in the adult prison system.

Boston, the former juvenile prisoner who said he started the Indian River uprising, is one of those people. Now an adult, he’s locked up in adult prison. He said the time he spent in juvenile prison is a big reason why.

“It’s not really for the rehabilitation of youth,” Boston said. “It’s about preparing the youth for the adult system.”

Ast said Ohio’s recidivism rate for juvenile offenders shows signs of improvement, and the state’s combined re-incarceration rate of 43.2% is better than it was a decade ago. Not all states track recidivism rates the same way, making comparisons difficult.

But Ast acknowledged the need for improvement becauserecidivism is our ultimate measure of success,” she said.

For some kids who are released, they don’t even live long enough to return to the prison system.

Donta Stewart, 18, went home to Columbus in 2021 and cut off contact with his parole officer.

Armed with a gun and hiding in a closet, he opened fire when police raided a house looking for someone else. Officers returned fire and killed him.

It wasn’t until Stewart was killed in a shootout with a police task force that the Department of Youth Services learned of his whereabouts.

Stewart’s death isn’t an outlier. A recent study that followed formerly incarcerated kids in Ohio found they are six times more likely to die violent deaths in the seven years after their release than kids who hadn’t been locked up.

They also are more likely to harm others. Three days after his release in August, a 16-year-old boy was charged with a carjacking and shooting that left Ohio State University All-American wrestler Sammy Sasso with life-threatening injuries.

The boy is now back in juvenile detention, charged with robbery, assault, theft and weapons violations.

Another kind of tragedy awaited 16-year-old Amon Ogletree 18 months after his release from Indian River. Someone shot him in the head while he was joyriding in a stolen Kia.

His online obituary included comments from people who referred to his time at Indian River.

“That year that I spent with you … was a pleasure,” one wrote.

“You are missed by many,” said another.

A former Indian River official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said losing Ogletree was sad but not surprising, because neither society nor the juvenile system is doing enough to save kids like him.

“How successful are we if they go home and re-offend?” the former official said. “Or end up dead?”

The Columbus Dispatch staff writer Jordan Laird, Akron Beacon Journal staff writer Amanda Garrett and Cincinnati Enquirer staff writer Kevin Grasha contributed to this report.