And one retired deputy, a participant in the program, confirmed Wednesday that the program took juveniles to “where the molesters and hardened criminals were.”
Both descriptions seem to fit the model of “scared straight” programs that are banned by federal and state laws.
Anniston resident Stacy Brown filed the suit against Amerson and a deputy – identified only as “Deputy Ward” – in the U.S. District Court for Northern Alabama in Birmingham Tuesday.
The suit states that on Feb. 4, Brown’s son – identified only as J.B. – spent the day at the jail and was allegedly verbally and physically abused by corrections officers and was “assaulted” and “battered” by Amerson.
That suit states that J.B. was at the jail Feb. 4 to participate in what the suit called a “scared straight” program.
It describes in detail J.B.’s alleged encounter with several inmates during a tour of the jail.
Saks resident Ken Reeves, a law-enforcement officer who retired from a job as a part-time deputy in September, said he was asked to supervise juveniles in the program on a couple of different occasions in November 2009. Reeves said Sheriff’s Office officials would tell him to take the juveniles in his care on tours through the jail so they could see the inmates.
There were usually only two juveniles under Reeves’ supervision on each tour, he said. A corrections officer would meet Reeves and the juveniles at the front of the jail and accompany them on the tours, he said.
“They wanted me to take them over to the jail where the molesters and hardened criminals were,” Reeves told The Star. “And the inmates would say things like, ‘boy, we can’t wait until you get in here with us; we can show you a thing or two.’”
Scared straight or community service?
Those descriptions of the program seem to run counter to a federal law that officials say prohibits any sight or sound contact between youthful offenders and adult inmates. The events described would also run counter to a state law, which bans youthful offenders from being detained in adult facilities as a way to modify those juveniles’ behavior.
“The federal Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Act – and I know Alabama participates with it – states a youth who is in juvenile justice custody, he or she is not supposed to be in a locked facility for adults,” said Tara Andrews, deputy director of the Washington D.C.-based nonprofit Coalition for Juvenile Justice. “They are not supposed to even literally be able to see or hear another adult inmate, because the purpose of the law is to protect young people from violence or harassment.”
Attempts to reach Amerson Wednesday were unsuccessful, but a news release posted on the Sheriff’s Office website Monday disputes the idea the program is of the scared-straight variety. The release stated the program, which Amerson has described as a service for teenagers who’ve been suspended from school or others who’ve committed minor crimes and are under the jurisdiction of the juvenile courts, was not a scared-straight program, but, instead, “an opportunity for community service.”
Other than the release, Amerson and officials with Family Links, Inc., the children’s behavior task force that helped form the program, have provided scant details about it.
“The activities will be structured in an environment that will educate the student about responsibility, respect and discipline under the direct supervision of a corrections officer,” the release said. “The child will be required to perform manual labor tasks such as cutting grass and cleaning.”
Reeves’ descriptions of the jail tours and the inmates’ reactions to the juveniles seem to match the description of J.B.’s Feb. 4 experience as detailed in the Monday lawsuit.
Two hours after arriving at the jail, Deputy Ward and jail guards took J.B. and one other juvenile on a tour of the facility, the suit states. During that tour, the complaint states, the guards stopped in the laundry room.
“The guards then spoke to the inmates and asked the inmates if they wanted some little boys in there with them. The inmates said, ‘yes,’” the suit alleged. “One of the inmates stated, while pointing at J.B., ‘I want that little black one right there.’”
Later in the day, after lunch, J.B. and the other juvenile were taken on the rest of the tour, when “they spoke to an inmate named Douglas,” the suit stated.
The suit then alleges Deputy Ward and other unnamed officers verbally and physically abused J.B., using racial slurs, pushing J.B. without cause and insulting his mother.
When J.B. curled his right fist into a ball by his side, the suit said, Deputy Ward noticed the gesture and threatened to put J.B. in a cell with Douglas, the inmate.
“J.B. began cussing at the officer. They handcuffed J.B. and put him in a room which he resisted after he was threatened with being locked up with an inmate,” the suit alleged. “He was in the room for a long time, between one and two hours.”
The suit said Amerson eventually came into that locked room to talk J.B. Part of what happened during that conversation is captured on a video first published by The Anniston Star March 30; the video clip shows the sheriff grabbing and holding down a boy dressed in an orange-striped inmate jumpsuit. The boy, whom the suit identifies as J.B., is shackled and has his hands cuffed behind his back during the incident.
Violation of law?
Juvenile justice experts who spoke with The Star Tuesday stated they thought the Sheriff’s Office program for juveniles, even without inmate contact, was a scared straight program that was in violation of the federal Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974 and of the Alabama Juvenile Justice Act of 2008.
During interviews last week, Amerson and Family Links Director Lyndsey Gillam both said the program began as a way to let high-risk kids see what jail might be like.
Andrews, the Coalition for Juvenile Justice spokeswoman, said Tuesday that kind of reasoning is exactly what makes the program fit into the scared-straight category.
And Andrews specifically addressed the Calhoun County program.
“Even if the inmate never addresses juveniles or touches him or her, it sounds, because some of the young people are justice involved, they may be in violation of federal law,” Andrews said.
Funding at stake
The federal law expressly prohibits youthful offenders from having any sort of sight or sound contact with inmates; it also bans those youthful offenders from being detained in adult facilities.
Furthermore, the Alabama Juvenile Justice Act of 2008 restricts youthful offenders from being “in secure custody in a secure section of a jail, lockup or correctional facility for adults as a disposition of an offense or as a means of modifying his or her behavior.”
The Alabama Administrative Office of Courts published an addendum after the state law was passed to explain the reasoning behind it.
“This provision will expressly prohibit shock incarceration programs like ‘scared straight,’ which involve bringing juveniles into adult facilities for the purpose of scaring them into modifying their behavior,” the court addendum reads. “Such programs are impermissible under federal law and jeopardize the state’s eligibility for millions of dollars in federal funding for delinquency prevention programs.”
Attempts to reach officials with the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs about how much federal funding the state and Calhoun County receive for delinquency prevention programs were unsuccessful Wednesday.
But a spokeswoman with the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, an arm of the United States Department of Justice, said in an email that states stand to lose 20 percent of federal funding per violation of the 1974 federal law. That means states could lose 20 percent of funding every time they break one of four specific sections of the law, which expressly prohibits sight and sound contact between juvenile and adult offenders, the detaining of youthful offenders in adult facilities, allowing a disproportionate number of youthful offenders who are minorities to come into contact with adult offenders, and the institutionalization of status offenders, or juveniles who commit acts that are crimes only for juveniles, like underage drinking.
“If there are enough violations, then the state can lose any federal or juvenile justice money, millions of dollars,” said Joe Vignati, the coordinator for the Governor’s Office of Children and Families in Georgia, during a Tuesday conversation with The Star.
Repeated attempts this week to reach Amerson and other Sheriff’s Office and Family Links officials this week about the specifics of the jail program have been unsuccessful.
Contact Star Staff Writer Cameron Steele at 256-235-3562.