BUSINESS

Lawsuits Allege Private Prison Company Covered Up Youth Sex Abuse

01/13/2014 01:00 pm ET | Updated Jan 25, 2014
Chris McGonigal

A pair of recent lawsuits against a private youth prison operator in Florida amplify claims that the company, Youth Services International, has frequently covered up reports that staff sexually abused young people held inside its facilities.

According to a suit filed in October in federal court, the top administrator at one YSI youth prison regularly made sexual advances toward teenage boys held there in 2010 and 2011 and on at least one occasion brought inmates home with him and into his bedroom. A separate case filed in Florida court in November alleges that a female guard at another YSI facility in 2012 began an "intimate and sexual relationship" with a 14-year-old inmate.

Florida officials at the Department of Juvenile Justice did not investigate these alleged incidents until months and even nearly a year after they occurred, according to accounts from the mothers of the victims and documents obtained by The Huffington Post. This was in part because the for-profit prison operator failed to immediately report the alleged episodes as required under its contracts with the state.

The lawsuits reinforce the findings of a recent Huffington Post investigation that revealed more than two decades of abuse and neglect inside private prisons operated by Youth Services International and other companies run by its founder, James Slattery. The series focused particular attention on the state of Florida, which has become emblematic of a nationwide trend in which growing numbers of prisoners of all ages are placed inside institutions operated by for-profit companies. Florida has entirely privatized its youth prisons.

The articles detailed multiple instances of young inmates at YSI facilities in Florida complaining of having been beaten, sexually assaulted or neglected by guards only to have their reports buried or minimized. Former staff at these prisons told HuffPost that the company systematically discouraged employees from reporting mistreatment and other violations in order to avoid imperiling future state contracts.

Florida's Department of Juvenile Justice largely relies on contractors to self-report serious events such as fights, assaults or escapes. Former YSI employees told HuffPost that the state's system created incentives for the company to under-report and cover up incidents of staff misconduct or violence.

Citing the HuffPost investigation, a top Florida lawmaker has called for legislative hearings on abuses inside YSI's prisons. The first is scheduled for Wednesday.

The new allegations fit a pattern documented in HuffPost's earlier investigation, one in which company employees failed to report serious incidents to state authorities. A former employee at Thompson Academy -- the YSI prison where the top administrator allegedly brought inmates home -- says he alerted higher-ups to the administrator's behavior in a formal complaint in October 2011. But corporate officials never called outside authorities as required, according to the employee and state juvenile justice records.

"They used to tell us, 'If something's going on, don't call the police, call a supervisor,'" said the former employee, Kamel Warren. "They don't want people to come in, investigate and find out what was really going on in this facility."

State juvenile justice officials did not learn of the administrator's actions until 11 months after the alleged events occurred. Even then, the reports came only after an outside attorney representing former YSI employees heard about the incidents and went directly to the state, according to DJJ complaint logs. Correspondence obtained by HuffPost shows that supervisors at YSI were aware of the allegations involving the administrator but did not report them to the state.

Trips outside a youth prison facility are allowed only in special circumstances, according to state regulations, and a parent typically must give consent. Tomonica Allen, the mother of one of the boys, said she knew nothing of the outside activities until after her son was released. "Every time my child left, why didn't they inform me that he was gone for two, three, four hours?" she said in an interview. "Why didn't I ever know this until he got out?"

The other lawsuit alleges a similar cover-up on the part of YSI. Employees did not report the improper relationship between the guard and the inmate to the state until months later, when the girl's mother discovered the relationship and started calling local police.

State records indicate that Department of Juvenile Justice investigators are looking into the allegations brought up in both lawsuits. But the department has made no formal conclusions, even though officials have been aware of some of the allegations for nearly two years.

A spokeswoman for Florida's Department of Juvenile Justice declined to comment on the two cases, citing the pending investigations.

A lawyer representing YSI, Michael Elkins, wrote in an email that the company intends to "vigorously defend" against the allegations that the Thompson Academy administrator brought boys home with him. Chris Slattery, a YSI vice president who is the son of chief executive James Slattery, said the company "immediately reported" to the state once officials learned of the allegations involving the employee who started a relationship with an inmate.

The federal lawsuit centers on allegations that Craig Ferguson, the top administrator at YSI's Thompson Academy from 2010 through 2012, took boys home with him on at least one occasion and touched them inappropriately both while off campus and at the prison.

Ferguson often summoned the plaintiff to his office inside the facility late at night and would take his shirt off in front of him and rub the boy's back, shoulders and thighs, according to the suit. If the boy declined the advances, Ferguson "would get upset and irritated with plaintiff, and send him back to his bed."

Allen, the plaintiff's mother, whose son was 15 when he was sent to Thompson in early 2011, said he started mentioning the outside trip to Ferguson's home after he was released. She said her son told her that Ferguson instructed the boys not to tell anyone they had been there.

Her son, whose name is being withheld because he was a juvenile at the time, told her he didn't go into Ferguson's bedroom that day, but other boys did.

Ferguson no longer works for YSI. In a phone interview after this article was published Monday, he denied all of the allegations about taking boys home, taking his shirt off and touching them inappropriately, calling the assertions "foolishness."

"All of those charges are false," he said. "People find motivation to do these type of things just for money. I'm surprised they would go so far with an untruth."

Warren, the former Thompson Academy employee, filed a sexual harassment complaint against Ferguson to YSI's corporate office in Sarasota, Fla., in October 2011 that also mentioned the administrator taking boys home. Warren wrote that Ferguson "hid a lot of things from investigators and lawyers. He has taken kids to his house and church with him. He bribes kids and staff."

Warren told HuffPost that a YSI senior vice president, Jesse Williams, acknowledged the allegations that Ferguson took boys home and said the company would investigate.

But state records show the first time the DJJ learned of the incident was more than four months later, in March 2012, when an outside attorney called in to report the allegations. Warren and other guards had mentioned Ferguson's behavior to the lawyer, Michael Hoffman, who was representing them in a separate wage dispute. Hoffman went on to represent Allen's son in the federal suit.

Elkins, the YSI lawyer, provided a redacted draft copy of the DJJ's investigation into the case, which confirmed that Ferguson took boys away from the facility but could not confirm whether he had taken them to his home.

Ferguson also pointed to the DJJ inspector general's preliminary findings, which he said proved the allegations against him "are lies."

"That came back unsubstantiated, and I knew that it would," he said.

Elkins noted that a judge dismissed a lawsuit involving Ferguson last year brought by the same lawyer, Hoffman, in state court. The judge dismissed the case because Hoffman failed to meet a filing deadline and had showed up late for a hearing.

The DJJ draft report also concluded that Warren and other lower-level employees should be held accountable for failing to report the incident, even though Warren did report the administrator's actions to his superiors at the company, who then did not relay the allegations to state authorities. The report found that corporate officials were not accountable, however, noting that one of the executives involved was in an "administrative position" and did not have direct contact with youth or guards.

Neither YSI nor state officials responded to additional questions about the investigation.

In the other lawsuit, filed in state court in November, the mother of a former inmate at YSI's Broward Girls Academy alleges that a female guard, Talisha Reddick, initiated a sexual relationship with her daughter when the girl was an inmate there.

Reddick would "punch, hit, slap and physically beat [her] and would also deny [her] bed sheets, food and sanitary items" if the girl refused to comply with her sexual advances, according to the lawsuit. The suit says Reddick continued to pursue the relationship for months after the girl left the facility.

The lawsuit accuses YSI of allowing Reddick to "take advantage of and manipulate" the girl, "whose capacity to protect herself was substantially diminished as a result of her youth, mental health issues and incarceration."

Reddick did not respond to calls seeking comment. Chris Slattery, the company vice president, wrote in an email that YSI believes the allegations are "without merit."

The girl's mother, Bridget Hester, said in a recent interview that she started noticing strange behavior in her daughter after she was released from Broward Girls in September 2012. She constantly missed classes at school, and would disappear at night and on weekends.

Several months later, a friend told Hester she had seen the girl kissing an older woman in a burgundy car. A few days later, in January 2013, Hester said she confronted a woman driving a car that fit the description who was dropping her daughter off outside a relative's home. She sped away, but the girl told her afterward that the woman was Reddick, Hester said.

Her daughter became despondent and refused to go to school, Hester said, and she ended up getting arrested with a group of girls in connection with an attempted carjacking last January. She is now serving time in a state-run prison for young female offenders.

Hester said her daughter opened up about her relationship with Reddick after the arrest, saying she often met the YSI employee for sex in Miami hotels.

Hester said she called Jasir Diab, a YSI regional vice president, on Jan. 21 last year to report Reddick. She also called local law enforcement and the Broward Girls Academy over the next few weeks.

State records show that Pamela Rollins, who heads the Broward Girls facility, called in the complaint to the DJJ on Jan. 28, a week after Hester said she told Diab about the misconduct. Neither Rollins nor Diab responded to requests for comment for this article.

Slattery said YSI reported the allegations "the same day it was brought to our attention." He said the company has no records of earlier conversations about the alleged improper relationship.

The DJJ's inspector general is still investigating the allegations, and the matter is also under criminal investigation by police and prosecutors in Palm Beach County.

This article has been updated to include comments to HuffPost from Craig Ferguson, the former Thompson Academy administrator, made after publication.

For more on Youth Services International, read HuffPost's two-part investigation, "Prisoners of Profit":

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