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Kids In Prison - Miami Herald Series March 2001

An Article By Terence T. Gorski
GORSKI-CENAPS Web Publications
Published On: March, 2001          Updated On: April 13, 2002
© Terence T. Gorski, 2001

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Kids In Prison - 
Miami Herald Two-Part Series 
March 2001

The Miami Herald published a two part series on Kids In PrisonPart 1 describes the circumstances surrounding high profile criminal cases that has resulted in more-and-more kids being tried and sentenced as adults.  It also looks at the damage that is done to kids incarcerated at adults that leads to higher rates of recidivism.  Part 2 documents the increased rate of physical and sexual assault among adolescents in adult correctional facilities.  This series highlights the need for all people of good will to band together to protect our juvenile justice system and to shift the power to decide which youth are tried as adults from prosecutors to judges.

Kids in Prison

Part 1: Tried as adults, 
they find trouble instead of help and rehabilitation

First in a two part-series

Published Sunday, March 18, 2001 


Florida's get-tough campaign on violent teens is instead targeting young thieves and drug dealers, a Herald investigation has found. Many of them end up in prisons fraught with abuse, only to be released as more refined criminals.

The high-profile prosecutions of Lionel Tate and Nathaniel Brazill, 14-year-old South Florida boys facing life in prison for murder, have dramatized Florida's role in the national movement to punish juveniles as if they were adults.

Outraged by violent teen crime, Florida has some of the toughest laws in the nation. Sixteen-year-olds can be prosecuted as adults for any felony. Children as young as 14 can be sent to the adult prison system for smash-and-grab burglary, aggravated assault and robbery.

As a result, one in 13 Florida prison inmates are doing time for a crime committed as a youth.

But the crackdown has flaws at every step. A Herald review of millions of court and prison records dating to 1995 shows:

Tourist murders by young felons helped spur legislators to pass laws bumping juvenile crimes to adult courts. But homicides comprise just two of every 100 juvenile adult court convictions. Less-serious burglaries, drug charges and thefts account for the majority.

     Florida's laws were created amid furor over a juvenile system that failed to control teens with long criminal pasts. But nearly half the juveniles prosecuted under Florida's crackdown had one or no prior felony conviction.

     Forty percent of juveniles tried in adult court get probation. Critics say this leads to more problems. Lacking punishment or rehabilitation, juveniles on probation often get in trouble again.

     One in three break the rules of their release, landing them in prison for crimes the sentencing judge didn't initially think warranted time behind bars.

     When juveniles do go to state prison, they are more likely to be assaulted than adult convicts , The Herald found. At Hillsborough Correctional Institution, a prison for juveniles and young adults, one teen was scalded in the face with boiling water. Another was blinded in one eye after a convict pummeled him with a lock stuffed in a sock.

       At Martin Correctional Institution, an adult prison in Indiantown, a seasoned convict choked the life from a Broward teen four years ago. After the murder of Michael Myers, an inmate told investigators how older convicts prey on the young: ``Michael was young, and a lot of the other inmates . . . was trying to make him his boy.''

     Young convicts leaving adult prison are more likely to continue with crime than juveniles accused of similar crimes leaving juvenile programs, studies by The Herald and two sets of researchers found.


Prosecutors across Florida strongly challenge the studies, saying that, if anything, the results show they picked the children with the greatest penchant for trouble.

But for Florida's fight against teen crime, the studies carry significance. Each of them matched children in the two systems -- adult court and juvenile court -- by their current charges, prior records and key demographics: in other words, similar youngsters, charged with similar crimes and with similar criminal pasts, routed to different systems.

The conclusion: Children sent to juvenile programs are more likely to stay out of trouble than those routed to prison.

This all has big implications.  If Florida fails to turn around its most unruly children, that means more crime victims ahead.


``We're giving up on too many of these kids who don't profile as the aggressive violent offender,'' said Shay Bilchik, director of the Child Welfare League of America, a children's advocacy group.

Prosecutors, criminal judges, police and crime victims view Florida's aggressive approach differently. They say last decade's runaway juvenile crime required serious action.

New laws in 1970s responded to rampant juvenile crime

Florida's crusade began in 1978, when state legislators moved to stem raging juvenile crime with new laws that gave prosecutors power to try 16- and 17-year-olds in adult court. Previously, those cases stayed in the juvenile courts, where authorities had control over teens typically to 18, though longer in special cases.

``In a perfect world, we would not have to pass this legislation. But we no longer have the Ozzie and Harriett homes,'' said Sen. Ginny Brown-Waite, R-Brooksville, who last year sponsored another lockup law requiring hard time for juvenile gun crimes even as juvenile crime was dipping.

``We have such a group of hardened kids out there,'' she said. ``We can't have little old ladies out there fearing the teenage kids. . . . We're not going to just slap you on the wrist.''

Legislators added muscle to the laws in the 1990s on the heels of notorious tourist killings.

In September 1993 came the ``shots heard around the state,'' as a Herald headline described a tourist murder at a rest stop in the piney corridor of I-10 near Monticello. Four teens were held, in the ninth tourist slaying in Florida since the previous fall. One culprit had 30 prior arrests, another, 26. The teens had ambushed a couple napping in their rental car, killing the man and wounding his companion.

After the next legislative session, prosecutors had the power to charge 14-year-olds in adult court for serious crimes -- bypassing the juvenile court system.

It's called ``direct file,'' a power that affords prosecutors wide discretion. The standard, under law: ``In the state attorney's judgment and discretion the public interest requires that adult sanctions be considered.''

Other times, prosecutors must file in adult court: 16- and 17-year-olds charged with their second violent crime against a person, children as young as 14 who have three prior felony adjudications, and all carjackings resulting in serious injury.

``Two months after we increased direct file, we started to see a drop'' in juvenile crime, said Leon Botkin, Miami-Dade's juvenile division chief, whose office wall is covered with yellowed newspaper clippings of violent teen crimes.

Advocates say the laws deter would-be delinquents and scare others to go straight. They also say children in prison do have long records, that convictions alone don't reflect all their troubles.

Nine of 10 juveniles in prison had been arrested for violent crimes, and each averaged 16 total charges, the Department of Corrections said in a 1999 study. ``This data clearly shows that the courts are sending juveniles to prison who have chronic and serious prior criminal records,'' Department of Corrections Secretary Michael Moore wrote to The Herald. He declined to be interviewed.

Significantly, however, the Corrections study looked at arrests, not convictions. It also examined counts, not cases -- a key distinction. If a juvenile burglarized a home, mangling the front door on the way in, and then broke into a car on the way out, the Corrections study would log three crimes.

Backed by the expanded powers, Florida had locked up one of every nine juvenile inmates in prison in the United States by 1997, according to a survey of a majority of states. Prosecutions have dipped with teen crime since a peak in 1995, but Florida remains a national leader.

Prosecuted for burglary, he ended up in state prison

Miami's Joseph Tejera is one of Florida's teen inmates, and he fits the state profile perfectly.

     Tejera was prosecuted for burglary, the most common juvenile adult court conviction, nearly one in four cases. Robberies comprise an additional 18 percent and drug charges, 17 percent.

     His prior rap sheet included no violence, just misdemeanor shoplifting. That's also typical. A third of Florida teens prosecuted in adult court between 1995 and 1999 had no prior felony convictions. Nearly half had no more than one.

      He was never sent to a juvenile program offering 24-hour supervision and therapy. Again, it's typical. In the majority of cases, teens were sent to adult court without a trip to the most intensive juvenile programs, such as locked facilities.

     Like many peers, he landed in prison after violating the terms of his release. He was originally given community control, a type of supervision similar to house arrest, and probation. He went to prison after missing 8 p.m. curfews -- twice.

Tejera grew up with a single mother working as a waitress to raise three boys. ``I hate to ask my mom for money,'' he said from prison on a scorching day, explaining his motive to steal. ``She had bills to pay.''

At 16 in 1999, he took jewelry, Nintendo video equipment, an autographed football, cassettes and candy in a Miami home burglary.

``He finds himself in adult court because he and other kids made a stupid mistake and wanted to steal a Nintendo set. They saw the Dan Marino football; they thought that would be nice to have, too,'' said David Tarlow, his appointed lawyer.

``No employer wants to hire a young person who has adult criminal charges,'' he added. ``I'm not trying to minimize what the kid did, but at the same point in time, why do we have a juvenile system? Do we want to rehabilitate them or make them part of the system?''

Tejera became part of the system largely because the burglary was at night with the victim asleep. ``I consider a nighttime burglary to be much more serious. After 5 p.m., there's more chance to run into someone,'' Miami-Dade's Botkin said.

``When you violate somebody's home, you show them in a very emotional way how unsafe they really are,'' said Brad King, president of the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association.

Locked up, the five-foot-five, 135-pound inmate earned a sterling disciplinary record. But he's also been in five fights. ``They'll come up to me and test me. And that's when you've got to fight. If you let them pick on you, that's when they really abuse you,'' he said, a cracked tooth the remnant of one scuffle. ``In prison, it's all about pride.''

Recently, he was transferred to a Miami-Dade work release prison, closer to family in Little Havana. Now 18, he'll be out this year, but his mother, Maria, fears for his future as an ex-convict.

`I was just taking stuff to help me eat,' she says

Born to a father now serving life in prison for sex crimes against minors, and a mother arrested for theft and drunk driving, Rebekah Homerston ran to the streets around Fort Lauderdale at 13. She found her own crimes: burglary, auto theft.

``I was just taking stuff to help me eat and find places to sleep,'' she said from her new home, Lowell Correctional Institution Women's Unit.

She went to prison before serving time in the most intensive juvenile programs -- programs that a counselor believes could have gotten her out of a bad home and turned her around.

The juvenile system operates like a ladder. Children with the most serious crimes climb to the most intensive programs.

Level 2 includes day treatment programs, runaway shelters, special schools. Level 4 is for ``low-risk'' teens who live at treatment centers for less than six months. Level 6 includes six- to nine-month stays at halfway houses and boot camps. At Levels 8 to 10, teens are locked up for one to three years.

Homerston had been in a Level 2 program -- barely up the rungs -- before her journey to state prison.

At 14, she went to PACE Center for Girls, a school for at-risk females in Fort Lauderdale. Suddenly, this runaway was scoring A's and B's on report cards. ``She had an incredible amount of potential,'' said PACE program director Shelly Servidio.

PACE is a daytime school, not an overnight program that forces children off the streets. Soon, Homerston ran away from home again and into crime. In Wilton Manors in 1997, she was charged with criminal mischief and burglary after police said she and three others vandalized the city's recreation center, causing $4,200 in damage.

At 15, she was prosecuted as an adult and got a two-year prison term, part in boot camp. ``I don't see how that's going to help Rebekah,'' Servidio said.

``She was really young at the time, and she had a lot of factors against her. Her dad was already in prison. She needed intervention in order to make better decisions. I don't think the prison system is set up to really try to accommodate that.''

It didn't. Released from Lowell Correctional, she was caught snatching a shirt in the Keys when she was four months shy of 17. She's now back in prison for 3 1/2 years, again showing potential, earning her GED just before her 18th birthday, enrolling in computer courses and keeping a good disciplinary record.

She said she's also seen prison's rough side. ``In our dorm, I've seen a lot of girls slit their wrists. All of the fighting and stuff, it really bothers me. Sometimes, I wish I could have my own cell or my own school. . . . It's hard to be good in there.''

Prosecutors say her case posed difficult questions. She had six cases and ran with gang members, even if she wasn't one. Yet none of her crimes were violent, she had a troubled home life, and she showed promise.

``There's no crystal ball,'' said Maria Schneider, assistant state attorney in charge of Broward's juvenile unit, who did not personally handle the case but reviewed the file after a reporter's inquiries.

``This young lady's priors involved basically the same type of behavior over and over again. I think someone down the line made the decision that there was nothing we were going to be able to do to dissuade this child from this behavior. Therefore, we went for punishment.''

Said Schneider: ``The toughest thing I do is to make that decision when it comes to a child. How do you know when enough is enough? I don't take that lightly. I have three of my own.''

The office drew attention recently for prosecuting Lionel Tate, 12 at the time of the incident, for murder in the death of playmate Tiffany Eunick, 6. Tate's defense team said he was imitating TV wrestlers when he body-slammed the girl. A Broward judge sentenced the boy to life in prison, but Broward prosecutors said they'll ask the governor to reduce the term.

Another boy accused of murder, Nathaniel Brazill, has yet to go to trial in the shooting death of Lake Worth teacher Barry Grunow last year. On Thursday in Palatka, Fla., 15-year-old John Silva was sentenced to life in prison for strangling a younger playmate.

Teen and an adult criminal committed an armed robbery

First-time felon Derrick Iverson is serving 10 years in adult prison on three counts of armed robbery after he and an adult criminal held up a Texaco gas station in Fort Lauderdale in 1999. He was 16, a new father and football player.

Imprisoned at 17, he now studies law books and takes adult education classes, trying to reform in a prison housing adult killers. ``If you don't care about yourself, your life is just over in here,'' he tells his first visitors in three months.

He speaks from Madison Correctional, east of Tallahassee, where posters on the wall bear a message that rings true: Use a gun, and you're done. 10-20-LIFE. During a crime, pull a gun -- 10 years. It's another law aimed at putting away young felons, such as Iverson.

Authorities say the case was clear-cut. Both robbers had guns and were caught on tape in a crime that so shook the victims that the cashier cried afterward. Iverson confessed. He got $52.

``That's a grown-up decision, and I don't apologize at all for making the decision to send him to adult court,'' said Alex Urruela, senior supervisor in Broward's juvenile unit.

Yet cashier Paul Ridley believes Iverson's sentence is harsh. He said the adult, not the teen, was the aggressor, putting a gun to his head. Once a prison employee himself, Ridley fears that a long time behind bars may only train Iverson to be a better criminal. Prosecutors say other victims agreed with the sentence.

``He's going to have to be a man the first day,'' Ridley said. ``He shouldn't be doing that much time. Give him house arrest. Send him to jail for two years. At least he can graduate from school and make himself better. At 27, he's going to be coming out a lot worse.''

Youth attacked by inmates, and it cost him an eye

Case studies show how young felons face trouble inside prison -- and afterward.

Tampa's Sedrick Burden, victim of a brutal prison assault, is an example.

He came into the adult system at 17. He had been on juvenile probation for previous theft charges and was far from exhausting rehabilitation programs when he was charged as an adult for possession of marijuana and cocaine with intent to sell. When he violated probation at 18 with a new drug case, a judge sent him to prison.

At Hillsborough Correctional Institution in 1999, he was pummeled with a lock stuffed in a sock over a trifling turf dispute -- because he's from Tampa, his assailants from across the state.

``They put his whole eye out,'' said his father, William Webb. ``They're supposed to be able to watch them. How can they let this happen?''

Released at 19 last year, he finds everyday diversions difficult. ``I can't catch a baseball, because it might hit me,'' he said from his family's working-class neighborhood. ``I get real dizzy.''

He can't hold jobs either. An ex-convict without prospects, he was arrested on marijuana charges again twice recently and may be headed back to prison.

His case is not unique.

The Herald conducted a computer analysis matching children sent to Florida's adult prison system with teens with similar records, age and race routed to juvenile programs. The result: Sending a juvenile to prison increases by 35 percent the odds he'll re-offend within a year of release.

The finding echoes an earlier Florida study looking at 2,738 pairs of juveniles in the 1980s with similar records, one sent to adult court, one not. Thirty percent in the adult system committed crimes after release, compared with 19 percent in the other group.

``When they come out, and they do come out, they may be more of a threat to society,'' said Donna Bishop, a Northeastern University criminal justice professor who coauthored the research.

A study of New York and New Jersey cases came to a similar result. ``We took this as evidence that there was no payoff prosecuting adolescents as adults,'' said Columbia University professor Jeffrey Fagan, the author.

Prosecutors contend that totally different systems can't be compared, and they say the Florida study didn't capture nuances that make or break filing decisions. It looked at children charged with burglary, for instance, but wouldn't know whether one was at night with victims at home, the other in the day.

If anything, they say, the results show they picked the most troubled teens for prosecution.

Florida lawmakers show no sign of turning back.

``Do I think we're going to ratchet back what we passed in the Legislature as the result of these studies? I would say, very unlikely,'' said Sen. Brown-Waite. ``The adult public, the senior citizens, are very happy overall with what we've done.''

Kids in Prison

Part 2: Young Inmates Report 
Highest Rate of Assault

Second in a two-part series

Published Monday, March 19, 2001 


Florida's youngest prison inmates are also its most likely victims of reported assaults.

Some attacks come at the hands of adults, others by juveniles. The weapons of choice: locks stuffed in socks used to smash faces, broom sticks, scalding water, food trays, toilet brushes, handmade knives, bare hands.

``The skin was hanging off my face,'' said David Bray, badly burned when inmates doused him with boiling water at Hillsborough Correctional Institution, a prison for juveniles and young adults near Tampa.

Some assaults occurred out of eyesight of correction officers, records show, raising security questions at Florida's prisons for young criminals.

Michael Moore, secretary for the Florida Department of Corrections, downplayed the level of prison violence and questions of lax security. He declined to be interviewed but responded to written questions.

``Incidents will occur in any prison system, but the number of serious incidents in the Florida system is extremely rare,'' Moore wrote to The Herald. ``No prison system can monitor the activity of every inmate every minute of the day.''

A Herald review of prison records covering 1995-1999 found:

 Juveniles are four times as likely as adults to report being assaulted in DOC facilities.

The DOC logged 362 assault complaints involving juvenile victims in the five-year period -- one for every two juvenile inmates. Among adults, there was one complaint for every seven adult inmates. The alleged attackers included adults, corrections officers, juveniles and visitors.

After inquiries from The Herald, the prison system conducted its own analysis of abuse complaints and came to generally similar results. But the department noted that its analysis showed that adult-on-adult cases were of a serious nature more often than adult-on-juvenile assaults.

A December audit by Florida's Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability reported that, overall, inmate-on-inmate batteries were up 39 percent last year, and inmate batteries against staff up 7 percent. ``Violence within the prisons is on the rise,'' it found.

     Children in the adult prison system are nearly 21 times as likely to be assaulted or injured as teens in Department of Juvenile Justice facilities

     Authorities logged one assault complaint for every two youthful DOC inmates, but one such complaint for every 35 youths in juvenile facilities.

The DOC believes it tracks allegations more aggressively than the DJJ, and that comparisons across the juvenile and adult systems are invalid. Moore cautioned: ``Comparing assault allegations across two different agencies is problematic because of the high likelihood that . . . how the data is captured are very different.''

But Mike Forche, assistant chief of investigations for the DJJ inspector general's office, said that if anything, children in adult prisons complain less often than those in juvenile facilities, because they fear being labeled as snitches.

     Two prisons for young felons, Hillsborough Correctional and Indian River Correctional, have security set-ups unlike any other Florida prison. Some wings are patrolled by fewer than one officer per dorm. Prison officials say that's because the prisons have small dorms of no more than 24-32 inmates, allowing officers to rove easily.

       Inmates say assaults occur in one dorm while an officer patrols another, and that many fights go undetected. Cons serve as lookouts.

     The DOC unwittingly helps arm attackers by selling locks to inmates -- at $6.92 apiece -- for lockers. With more than 70,000 inmates in the system, there are about that many locks circulating. After a spate of locker break-ins at Hillsborough Correctional, prison officials there provided a bigger lock for a while -- nearly 12 ounces, up from the normal 6.

One teenage Hillsborough inmate lost an eye in an attack in 1999. In 1998, a Fort Lauderdale teen was assaulted with a lock by a 20-year-old, also at Hillsborough. Last year at Desoto Correctional Institution, an adult prison, a Miami-Dade 16-year-old was attacked with a lock while sleeping.

``There is a simple explanation for why locks are sold to inmates: so they can secure their personal property in lockers,'' C.J. Drake, until recently a DOC spokesman, e-mailed The Herald in the course of interviews involving assault cases.

``No locks at all would result in more serious problems than locks being used as weapons. A rock, bar of soap, shampoo bottle filled with sand or other heavy object in a sock is equally effective as a weapon. A broom, mop handle, toothbrush, paper clip or other common object that inmates have access to can also be made into weapons.''

Why not provide locks that can't be used as weapons, such as combination locks that are permanently attached to lockers?

Prison officials say inmates would merely find other means to attack and that switching to another method would be costly.

Other states do some things differently. North Carolina and New York, both with hundreds of juveniles in the adult prison system, say they have at least one officer per dorm. North Carolina does not provide locks to the majority of juvenile inmates, since most can lock their room doors and don't need locker padlocks. New York, like Florida, sells locks.

Teen was attacked with scalding water

Locks aren't the only weapons.

Bray, then 17, suffered first- and second-degree burns when inmates threw boiling water on him at Hillsborough in 1998. Bray, who has a lengthy juvenile record, said he had been in a gang-related fight with one of the attackers earlier that day, and this was revenge.

For a month, one side of his face was covered with bandages, removed daily so cream could soothe his burn. His burn has faded, but not his memory. After the attack, he filed a grievance against the prison.

``You don't even have enough officers to put in every dorm,'' Bray, now 20, said from his new prison, Gulf Correctional Institution in Wewahitchka in deep North Florida. ``It was completely undermanned.''

He was attacked in a wing of Hillsborough with a minimum staffing of one officer for every three dorms, each with 24-32 inmates.

On the night of the attack, the DOC said there were two officers, ``which exceeded the minimum complement.''

DOC officials contend that the security is adequate and say Hillsborough's staffing is ``equal to or better than'' that of other prisons for the young.

``It's sort of a stretch to say, `If we had an officer in each of these dorms, those things wouldn't have happened,' '' said James Upchurch, the DOC's chief of security operations.

He said attacks can occur in a flash, and sometimes right before officers' eyes. ``I don't think there's any doubt that the kinds of inmates we're getting nowadays are more violent.''

Moore noted that allegations are not always sustained, but said reported assaults are ``taken seriously'' and thoroughly investigated.

However, the DOC could not provide the number of reported assaults sustained between 1995 and 1999, saying the data are not computerized.

The DOC's legal office turned over a database of reported prison assaults during that period only after a legal effort by The Herald lasting several months.

Prison officials said they aggressively prevent assaults, seizing contraband that could be used as weapons 2,400 times last year.

Teenager strangled by older cellmate

But they couldn't prevent the murder behind bars of Michael Myers, a teenager from Broward County, despite warnings that his cellmate was planning violence.

At 15, Myers was arrested for sexually assaulting a relative, 79, who suffered from Alzheimer's and was ``confused and crying about why Michael had hurt her,'' records show. After the latest in a series of horrific acts, the spindly teen came before Broward Circuit Judge Mark Speiser.

Speiser felt strongly that Myers had to be put away, and just as strongly that he needed mental-health counseling. But the judge's options were limited.

``It was like butting your head against the wall,'' Speiser said. ``I wanted to place him in a locked facility for a juvenile offender. But they had no facility. He wasn't mentally incompetent, so I couldn't place him in a forensic facility.''

That left adult prison. He gave Myers 18 years. He went to Martin Correctional.

In 1997, he roomed with six-foot-three Chris Soule, then 20, who was in for robbery, burglary and grand theft in Pinellas County. Soule also had an ``extensive and violent'' prison disciplinary record, records show. He was requesting protective custody because his father was a police officer and other inmates wanted revenge, he said.

When the DOC said he needed specific proof of threats, Soule made his own. ``I will do my best to injure any roommate I may receive in the future,'' he wrote May 8, 1997.

Two weeks later, Myers, then 17, moved in. Two weeks after that, he was killed. ``I want to be straight with you,'' Soule, later convicted of second-degree murder, said at the time, records show. ``I choked him.''

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