In February 2004, the detention hall at the Martin P. Joyce Juvenile Justice Center housed kids two to a room, and the population crept toward 90 in a facility with 40 rooms.
It was in this environment that a 17-year-old teenager was raped by his cell mate, who purportedly was a known sexual predator.
The rape led to criminal charges, and one of the two federal civil-rights lawsuits filed alleged a lack of safeguards allowed boys to be raped or sexually assaulted while incarcerated at the county detention center.
The lawsuits were dismissed, but the teenager accused of raping the 17-year-old pleaded guilty to the crime in 2005 and was sentenced to seven years in prison.
Court Administrator Anthony D’Apolito, also a magistrate, took his post in 2006, near the end of the cases.
One of the first changes he made was to ban double-bunking in the center.
“I never wanted to ever have an opportunity for that to happen again,” he said of the rape.
Now, the average population in the center is 32.
D’Apolito receives daily reports from the detention center, which is part of the juvenile court complex on the East Side.
A juvenile can stay in detention for one day if committed on a “status offense,” such as truancy, curfew violation or unruly juvenile. The average stay is nine days compared with 25 days in 2006, D’Apolito said.
Jason Lanzo oversees Mahoning County’s detention center and led The Vindicator on two tours this summer.
The first tour was in June. Staff at the detention center refer to the youth incarcerated there as students, because all are required to attend school, whether or not they are enrolled in school outside the center.
“Whether a student is enrolled or expelled, we don’t care. We come from the standpoint that they all have to work on school,” Lanzo said.
“The chances for a lot of these kids are dismal. Many of their friends and family are gone from untimely death or prison. Juvenile court is meant for rehabilitation, and to seek education gives a true chance of them not coming back. They might not be Rhodes Scholars, but they will be able to better their situation,” he continued.
The teachers are part of Youngstown City Schools and teach classes for 51/2 hours Monday through Friday. Some of the youths have individual education plans.
But sometimes the classes can be disrupted; during the first Vindicator visit, students had class on their own units, or “halls” as they’re called, instead of one of the three classrooms because of fights or other disruptions. They hadn’t had class together for the previous several weeks.
“We do have security threat groups. Gang affiliations are something we constantly deal with on a day-to-day basis, but the staff understands the students and their families, and our first priority is to keep the students safe. We tend to quell situations before they arise,” Lanzo said.
The number of fights deemed serious by staff has increased from 15 in 2008 to 29 in 2011, as has the number of times staff has used pepper spray on youths from 6 in 2008 and 14 in 2011, reaching a four-year peak of 16 in 2010.
Before being assigned to a hall, youths are asked a series of questions, including those that might indicate whether they have a mental or substance-abuse problem.
“Those are real situations that occur with a good deal of our students,” Lanzo said. “We ask them questions like, ‘Do you feel like harming yourself or others?’ If there’s anything there in the smallest measure, they receive special uniforms that they can’t hurt themselves with.”
The reception area to the detention center is secure. No firearms are permitted inside the facility, and those brought in by law enforcement are locked away before officers enter the facility.
After going through a metal detector, youths are escorted into a bathroom with a worker of their same gender.
“We inventory every stitch of clothing. We see if there are any injuries or any sign of child abuse and get proper medical attention if needed,” Lanzo said.
If treatment is needed, officers take youths to a local hospital and return only when youths are cleared medically.
The clothing inventory is necessary, Lanzo said. Youths have tried to smuggle items in. One girl hid a cell phone inside a body cavity, making it past security, and used it to call a friend at night in an escape attempt.
“Students do not like it,” he said. “We try to protect their privacy. The whole thing is very quick. The clothes go back on in a matter of seconds.” He added the process is based on state rules, and the facility also is certified by the American Correctional Association.
At minimum, youths are cuffed at their feet. During transport throughout the center, youths have feet, wrist and stomach cuffs.
The building is monitored by cameras and keys are needed to get behind every door and up the elevator. The stairwells have nets to prevent youths from throwing objects and to discourage fights.
But even though it’s impossible for kids to forget that they are in the juvenile equivalent of jail, the facility is designed to reinforce normalcy and routine.
A heavy emphasis is placed on hygiene, with youths brushing their teeth and showering daily. Religious services are available if students want to attend, and they can also see their own religious leader if they want.
The indoor gymnasium has a wooden floor now instead of tile. The outdoor area is surrounded by cameras and chicken and razor wire fences, but also has basketball courts and a grill that staff occasionally uses to cook for youths.
“It’s important for them to get outside. It helps their psyche; they enjoy the fresh air and the grass,” Lanzo said.
The Vindicator spoke to male teenagers during various court programs and those who had been in detention before said they had been treated well.
In exchange for speaking with the youths, the newspaper agreed not to identify them in photos or by name.
“Derek,” who was in detention on a probation violation, said staff members were fair, and students took part in activities and were fed well.
“In detention we wake up around 7 a.m., and the staff treats us good; we eat good and everyone gets along. There’s never anything serious that goes on,” he said.
His probation officer “is fair. And now I understand why I’m here. They keep their word,” Derek said, referring to his probation officer’s updates about his court case and possible release date.
Lanzo said many youths do well when given a routine and encouragement to set goals. He added that staff members are trained to engage with the students instead of acting purely as guards.
“Safety is never in question here and students know how to act by our interactions and demeanor. If you treat them less than human, you do nothing but perpetuate the cycle,” he said.
Ashley Luthern is a reporter for The Vindicator and a 2012 John Jay College Juvenile Justice Reporting Fellow.