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Miami Herald investigation uncovers staff organized ‘Fight Clubs’ within Florida Juvenile Justice System

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The newspaper discovered a culture of violence and abuse within Florida juvenile detention facilities, including staged fights which were enforced by staff members.

Florida Department of Juvenile Justice

A sweeping investigation by the Miami Herald into allegations of abuse in Florida’s youth detention facilities has culminated in the release of a series of articles collectively titled Fight Club: Dark Secret’s of Florida’s Juvenile Justice System. The interactive news piece details a litany of alleged offenses within detention facilities perpetrated by justice system employees. The allegations include the setting-up of what have been termed ‘fight clubs.’

The piece was constructed by the Miami Herald I-Team, who analyzed ten years of records from the Florida Juvenile Justice System. The records included documents, photographs, interviews, and surveillance videos. What they discovered was a workforce filled with questionable hires who, aided by poor oversight, were able to physically abuse detainees and bribe or coerce them into either viscous assaults or staged fights to be gambled upon.

With 45 percent of Florida’s youth offenders being detained again within one year, the Miami Herald claims the culture they have uncovered is - instead of reforming juvenile delinquents - turning them into hardened felons.

One of the stories within Fight Club is Dark Secrets of Florida Juvenile Justice: ‘honey-bun hits,’ illicit sex, cover ups by Carol Marbin Miller and Audra D.S. Burch. That story focuses on the death of Elord Revolte, a 17-year-old resident of Module 9 of the Miami Juvenile lockup. He was killed after a dozen boys attacked him in the dining hall. After being beaten to the ground his attackers used a technique they called an ‘A-town Stomp’ to further the torment. Revolte died thirty hours after the attack, as a result of internal bleeding. All of the assault was captured by surveillance video. No one was charged for Revolte’s death because, according to the State Attorney’s Office, “the poor quality of the video equipment hampered its ability to hold anyone accountable.”

It was Revolte’s death, which was at least the 12th questionable juvenile detainee death in Florida since 2000, that spurred the Miami Herald’s investigation. The investigation found that, long before Revolte’s killing, detainees had been complaining about staff “turning them into hired mercenaries, offering honey buns and other rewards to rough up fellow detainees.”

‘Honey-bunning’ seems particularly prevalent across Florida’s youth detention facilities. Gordon Weekes, a Broward County juvenile defender, told the Herald that his office “has complained repeatedly that poorly nourished youths were being manipulated by staff.” The ‘honey-bunning’ practice involves detention staff using treats from the staff vending machine to bribe detainees into violent acts.

When youths refuse a staff member’s orders to fight another detainee, they can face stiff punishment. 14-year-old Andrew Ostrovsky was serving time in the Broward Regional Juvenile Detention Center after taking his dad’s car for a joyride. Inside he was allegedly told by detention officer Darell Byrant to beat up another detainee. Ostrovsky tried, but Byrant then threw him on the ground and punched him in the face, breaking his nose in two places. Again, the entire incident was captured on surveillance cameras. Bryant resigned from the Department of Juvenile Justice and Fort Lauderdale Police have a case open on the incident.

Another article from the investigation - titled Outrage brings reform at violent Palm Beach juvenile program - details the so-called ‘fight club’ that existed at Palm Beach Juvenile Correctional Facility. The article includes testimony from Steven Santos, a teenage detainee who was serving time for robbery and aggravated battery. In a declaration signed in support of a whistle-blower lawsuit, Santos said he was an enforcer for the guards. He claimed he was instructed to beat up fellow detainees in order to “keep the dorm uner control.” His reward for doing this was take-out food and the promise that his sentence would be shortened.

Santos also claimed that staff set up fights between detainees, which the staff would bet on. The whistle-blower lawsuit was settled in March 2016 with Youth Services International (the operator for Palm Beach Juvenile Correctional Facility). YSI claimed they settled to avoid a lengthy and expensive legal process, but also denied the validity of the claims made by Santos and others.

Outside of that lawsuit, a number of other claims have been made against Palm Beach Correctional. In March, 2014 Rashad Ables suffered a broken nose in a fight he says we set up by staff. A few months later Ables told investigators he was injured from his third staged fight in the facility. Ables tells investigators that two workers converted a supply closet into a ‘mixed martial arts cage’ and then watched detainees fight inside it.

The Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office investigated the facility in 2014. They had already arrested staff members from there in the past, for starting a boxing club minus gloves or headgear within the detention center. The new investigation proved there was evidence that workers “allowed youths to fight with little to no staff intervention” but insufficient evidence that they “arranged” fights.

A video from June 12th, 2015 offers some of the most clear evidence of Palm Beach Juvenile Correctional staff overseeing a fight between detainees. The surveillance footage shows two shirtless youths fighting while a staff member (in a dark green polo shirt) watches on. He seems to separate the two youths once the fight goes to the ground. According to the Herald the same detainees fought again the next day. One of the detainees required jaw surgery as a result.

The main reason behind the violent practices at these facilities is, according to the Herald, the hiring process that sees under-qualified individuals with histories of violence employed in Florida’s juvenile justice system. The piece Criminal record? Horrible work history? Florida juvenile justice would still hire you reveals that around 350 staff members at juvenile detention centers are individuals who had been fired - or resigned due to wrongdoing - from jobs in adult corrections facilities. “Those included about 74 employees who were caught sleeping on the job or failing to show up for work, and 66 who were fired for a “moral character” violation. An additional 47 employees were hired after they resigned or retired while being investigated for such a serious breach.”

One of the staff members the Herald profiled in detail was Uriah Harris who was hired by Avon Park Youth Academy, a detention facility in Polk County. This was despite Harris having been arrested 11 times and being charged with aggravated battery, domestic violence, child neglect, and prowling. He was fired from Avon Park after two years, thanks in part to reports he beat boys with a broomstick. Harris allegedly named his weapon ‘Broomie.’ This is just one of many stories the Herald released detailing abuse committed by a juvenile detention staff member.

To repair what is clearly a broken system in Florida, the Herald suggests the state adopts practices similar to New York and Missouri. The paper details this in its article How NYC and Missouri are reforming juvenile justice - without razor wire fences.

That story states that after a death in a youth prison in 2006, a report into New York’s youth justice system found an unnecessarily “high degree or force” that lead to “an excessive number of injuries” inside facilities. In response the state shifted their spending from “brick-and-mortar institutions” into community alternatives. Judges were also asked to stop incarcerating youths who were not significant risks to public safety.

Outside of youth facilities, staged fights are nothing new in the US prison-industrial complex (a system that incarcerates more people than anything else on Earth). In September, 2016 it was reported that three San Francisco County jail inmates had been awarded a settlement after being forced to fight for the entertainment of their guards. In 2015 The Huntsville Item reported that former correction officers in Texas were sentenced to jail for allowing prison fights and then trying to cover it up. In the 1990s, Cocoran state prison in California was also hit with a fight club scandal. Cocoran played host to a ritual known as ‘gladiator days’, where guards would bet on prisoner fights. In some cases, according to The Independent, prisoners were shot and killed by guards during these fights.

Prison fight clubs have also been reported in the UK, Canada, and New Zealand.