The head of Florida's juvenile justice department defended her agency's oversight of private prison contractors before a state Senate panel on Wednesday amid allegations of violence and mistreatment inside the nation's third-largest juvenile corrections system.
A Huffington Post investigation published in October detailed a legacy of abuse at prisons operated by the for-profit firm Youth Services International and other companies run by its founder, James Slattery. YSI does the bulk of its business with Florida's Department of Juvenile Justice and has continued to win multi-million dollar contracts over the last 17 years, despite a mounting record of problems.
Senators questioned Wansley Walters, the secretary of the Florida DJJ, and heard testimony from others who called for the state to end its contracts with the private prison firm.
Walters rarely spoke directly about YSI, but stressed broader reforms the department has made to bring down the number of boys and girls committed to its juvenile prisons, which the state terms "residential treatment centers."
"We are looking at every level of our system to make it a system that will be healthy for the children that we serve," Walters said. "I can assure you there is no area of this department that hasn't been looked at and reformed."
She pointed to agency statistics showing a 23 percent reduction in juvenile delinquency arrests, along with a movement toward smaller facilities and a reduction in the number of prison beds, as evidence of the department's progress in reshaping the system.
Several senators questioned Walters on specific findings of HuffPost's investigation into the state's contracting system, including why the agency doesn't perform checks on prison contractors' records in other states. In the mid-2000s, the company won several contracts in Florida even as it remained under investigation by the U.S. Justice Department for rampant abuse at one of its youth facilities in Maryland.
The company did not disclose that out-of-state investigation to Florida officials because it wasn't required to do so -- a policy that remains in place today.
Walters said Florida's contracting system is robust, and therefore "rarely comparable, if comparable at all" to other states.
Oscar Braynon, a Democratic state senator, also asked about the state's system of self-reporting. The DJJ relies on contractors to call in major incidents such as fights, escapes, or instances of sexual abuse at privately run prisons. Former YSI employees told HuffPost that the system incentivized the company to cover up or under-report incidents.
"Is it possible for people to withhold information from not only the director of the facility but also corporate? Of course it is," Walters said. "Hopefully we are getting enough information that we can start to learn about it, but usually the information would percolate through to the children."
At one point during the hearing, Walters argued that this reporter "wasn’t interested" in hearing the state's side of the story, including the reforms she was citing. HuffPost sought comment from the Department of Juvenile Justice over several months before publishing the October investigation, and requested an interview with Walters.
The department scheduled an interview in August, a month after HuffPost’s request, but Walters, through a spokeswoman, canceled the day before. The spokeswoman did not reschedule the interview despite numerous requests and gave only written responses to questions.
The department responded to no questions involving YSI, instead providing pages worth of policies the department uses in its contracting system.
Senators also heard testimony from members of the public, including representatives from the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Dream Defenders, a group of student advocates who are calling for Florida to end its contracts with YSI. (Company officials did not respond to a request for comment on the hearing.)
"Why would you, as an elected body of representatives, continue to allow a company like this to continue to even touch our tax dollars?" said Michael Sampson, a Dream Defenders representative from Florida State University. "Companies like them harm our state, and we must not allow grave injustices being done by private prison companies like YSI to continue to harm our children."
David Utter, the Florida policy director at the Southern Poverty Law Center, suggested the state allow more involvement from community members in its juvenile justice programs.
"We often use the juvenile justice code as a shield to protect the anonymity of these kids," Utter said. "But what we end up doing is protecting the abusers who are not doing their job. If we had more transparency, more community oversight, more community involvement, that would go a long way."
Democratic state Sen. Jeff Clemens noted the difference between the level of oversight in the juvenile justice system, where state officials typically visit facilities once a month, and private adult prisons in Florida, where he said a state monitor is on hand five days a week.
Walters acknowledged the difference in staffing, but said her agency has beefed up its oversight of private juvenile prisons: The state sends a monitor to each facility every month and does an in-depth audit of each program annually that includes "structured interviews" with children to evaluate how they are being treated.
Darren Soto, the Democratic state senator who called for the hearing on the company, brought up the possibility of having the state boost the number of people monitoring contracts in order to improve the oversight process.
A spokeswoman for Soto said after the hearing that he plans to send out a letter in the next few weeks outlining proposed changes to the state's contracting and oversight process.
For more on Youth Services International, read HuffPost's two-part investigation, "Prisoners of Profit":