AVON PARK — A report detailing how and why 11 dozen juveniles rioted at Avon Park Youth Academy will be released soon.
“We’re still working on the IG’s investigation,” said Meghan Speakes Collins, communications director for the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice. The Inspector General’s report “is in the final stages. It is to be released shortly, and it will outline the high points.”
On the night of Aug. 17, two rival gangs bet on a basketball game. At the Avon Park Bombing Range, 10 miles northeast of the city, DJJ contracted with G4S Youth Services of Tampa to teach job skills and treat mental health and substance abuse to 16-19 year-old males at the 144-bed moderate-risk prison.
One group — Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd labeled them the St. Pete gang — challenged the Orlando group to a basketball game. St. Pete lost but reneged on a bet of three packages of soup, and a fight broke out.
When a G4S staffer tried to stop a juvenile from walking into a restricted area, inmate Zayroux Graham hit him in the mouth with a fist and knocked down the adult, Judd said.
Other inmates enticed the players to fight, which Avon Park Youth Academy G4S staffers were unable to break up. More juveniles became rebellious, and the melee was on.
G4S staffers retreated into a structure near the gate. A few minutes later, the Polk County 911 center received a “frantic call” that a “full-blown riot” was in progress.
Lt. Curtis Ludden said a dozen Highlands County deputies responded to Avon Park Youth Academy, along with 140 Polk County deputies, SWAT and K-9 teams, corrections officers, Fish & Wildlife, Florida Department of Law Enforcement, state troopers, Sebring police officers and EMS.
G4S staffers were ushered out. “They were terrified, and with good reason,” Judd said. One staffer fell during the riot and injured a knee; she was taken to the hospital, treated and released. No other staffers or law enforcement were injured.
Seven juveniles were transported to Florida Hospital Heartland in Sebring: one had a broken leg, others had bruises, lower back pain, lacerations and one concussion.
“They weren’t trying to escape. They were inside the compound. Some of them were riding around on golf carts and bicycles,” Ludden said. “We took about 120 of them into custody,” Ludden said. Most were handcuffed and wound up in Polk County Jail.
The 64 (DJJ counts 62) youths charged weren’t misguided children, Judd said, they were hard-core thugs.
G4S (formerly Wackenhut Corp.), a worldwide corporation with 50,000 employees, “acted appropriately,” DJJ Deputy Communications Director Heather DiGiacomo said. G4S also had the appropriate number of staff on site.
At a press conference in September, Judd didn’t blame the G4S staff for letting the 138 juveniles get out of control, but blamed DJJ for not equipping the staff with the proper tools, which could have been as simple as pepper spray and flexible handcuffs.
“We will not be equipping them with pepper spray. That will not change,” DiGiacomo said. “They do have plastic handcuffs.
“There was no contingency for this event,” said Judd. “The Department of Juvenile Justice needs to understand that there is a difference between a ... child and a hard-core thug.”
Some of the rioters were just kids who had made serious mistakes, Judd conceded, and he can’t be certain how many of the 138 inmates participated in the riot. But the 64 had been charged with more than 900 previous crimes, an average of 15 each. Many were gang members, he added.
“The sad truth of this riot is that it was 100 percent preventable. By DJJ rule, the G4S employees are not allowed to have any specialty equipment.”
“The sheriff stands by his original statements,” Carrie Eleazer, the public information officer for Polk County Sheriff’s Office, said Thursday.
Since there was no video at the prison, Polk County deputies prepared charges by relying on DJJ and G4S staffers, who recognized voices over stolen staff radios, noted which juveniles were throwing punches, and which were riding on staff golf carts.
G4S Maintenance director Mark Frederick Magrini estimated $350,000 in damage to the facility.
All 64 were charged with rioting and felony criminal mischief. Others were charged with burglary, petit theft, breaking into a vending machine, contraband and theft of a fire extinguisher. Three were to be charged with arson.
None were from Highlands County. They were from Alachua, Broward, Charlotte, Columbia, Duval, Hillsborough, Indian River, Lee, Leon, Marion, Manatee, Miami-Dade, Oklaloosa, Orange, Polk, Palm Beach, Pinnelas, Sarasota, Seminole and Volusia counties.
“Everyone accepted a plea deal to either misdemeanor affray or misdemeanor criminal mischief,” Eleazer emailed Thursday.
DiGiacomo disagreed. “Per the state attorney, seven were ‘no bills; 44 pled guilty, and 11 cases are pending. The majority were charged with misdemeanors. About half returned to Avon Park; the rest were transferred to another facility or remained in adult jail.”
If this riot happened again, what would be different?
Video cameras have been installed, DiGiacomo said. The 144 beds were reduced to 80 beds.
“We have learned from this experience,” DiGiacomo said. DJJ will wait for the IG’s report before considering other changes, but the size of its 47 residential facilities have already gotten smaller. “This was an anomaly. It is not something that happens in DJJ programs, And we don’t want anything like this to ever happen again.”