POLK COUNTY, FL (WFLA) – Florida Department of Juvenile Justice Secretary Christina Daly tells Eight on Your Side she has “the utmost respect” for Polk County sheriff Grady Judd and State Attorney Jerry Hill, but they’re dead wrong when it comes to their blistering criticism of the Highlands Youth Academy. “It’s hard to say what we’re doing is not working,” said Daly. We’ve invested a lot of money, about two million dollars in that facility.”
Monday Hill and Judd detailed a scathing grand jury presentment that criticized the facility for slum-like conditions, failed security and poor management by the private company G4S Security that Hill says turns an $800,000 annual profit running the facility in a state contract with the DJJ. “Our legislators and our staff up there [in Tallahassee] can’t get a real grip on these facilities to determine what’s really going on,”’ said Hill. “This is simply symptomatic of what’s happening all around the state.”
Daly insists the grand jury’s conclusions about conditions at the Highlands Youth Academy are outdated and misguided. “We continue to make improvements to the facility,” said Daly “We’ve redone several of the roofs. We’ve got some dormitories that are going to be completely rebuilt.” Hill, and Polk Sheriff Grady Judd cited numerous examples of shoddy conditions discovered by detectives who were investigating the escape march 7th of a teen offender with a history of violence.
G4S managers failed to notify law enforcement of the boy’s escape for nearly an hour and deputies had to use bloodhounds to track him down. The subsequently determined there are no locks on windows and doors and breaches n the fenced perimeter. That escape lead to the grand jury investigation of conditions, security measures and management practices by G4S and the conclusion that the state should shut it down. “The facilities themselves are a total disgrace,” said Hill. “Currently only G4S is winning. The citizens suffer, the taxpayers suffer and most importantly–let’s not take our eye off the ball–most importantly, the juveniles receive no meaningful chance to improve themselves.”
G4S, an international security firm that Hill says operates 29 juvenile offender facilities across Florida, sent Eight on Your Side a 13 page response to the grand jury report that essentially concludes it is doing a great job and the grand jury didn’t get its facts straight. Daly concedes there have bene problems in the past—specifically when a full blown riot requiring 15 officers to put down—ravaged the place two years ago. But the Secretary insists G4S has really turned things around and now offers quality care and training for the young offenders. “The program is much different than it was,” said Daly.
After overseeing the grand jury investigation, the Polk County State Attorney strongly disagrees. “To say I’m skeptical is an understatement,” said Hill.