This article and others in this series were produced as part of a project for the University of Southern California Center for Health Journalism’s National Fellowship, in conjunction with the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Link to video depicted above.
Fight Club: Dark secrets of Florida Juvenile Justice
Wednesday, October 11, 2017
The boys had just returned to Module 9 of the Miami juvenile lockup from the dining hall when one of them hit Elord Revolte high and hard. More of the boys jumped in, punching and slamming him over and over, then pile-driving his 135-pound body.
One called it an “A-town Stomp,” and demonstrated to detectives by jumping on the floor with both feet.
Elord, 17, fought back gamely. “I swung a punch,” said the youth who struck him with the first blow. “I hit him. He swung two punches. He hit me. I swung one punch and then I grabbed his shirt and hit him again. Then I slammed him on his head and I hit him. … All my friends, they start jumping over the chairs, while Elord was on the floor and they went to stomping on him.”
When Elord rose from the 68-second thrashing — every kick and punch meted out in front of a surveillance camera — he was too angry to know his own hurt. He said all he wanted was to kill the boys who had brutalized him.
Thirty hours later, Elord was the one dead, the result of internal bleeding from that mauling, which two of the youths said was instigated by a detention officer.
Elord Revolte’s death evokes many of the dark secrets of Florida’s troubled juvenile justice system, including incompetent supervision, questionable healthcare, willfully blind internal investigations and spasms of staff-induced violence, sometimes bought for the price of a pastry.
The lack of accountability has left children in peril, unfit employees in charge and parents frustrated, frightened and sometimes grieving.
“They treated my child worse than a dog,” said Enoch Revolte, Elord’s father. “My child wasn’t a dog. My son deserves justice.”
He didn’t get it. No one was held to account.
Not the dozen-plus boys who ambushed Elord.
Not the detention officer identified by a detainee as ordering up the attack because Elord had mouthed off minutes earlier.
Not the nurses who waited a day to get Elord to the hospital as he oozed blood internally.
Not the administrators who failed, despite repeated warnings, to supply juvenile lockups with modern surveillance equipment.
Spurred by the death of Elord Revolte on Aug. 31, 2015, at least the 12th questionable juvenile detainee death since 2000, the Miami Herald embarked on a sweeping investigation of juvenile justice in Florida.
Reporters examined both state-run juvenile detention centers, essentially jails for kids ages 13 to 18 who are accused of crimes, as well as the state’s residential “programs,” prison-like institutions where they are sent by judges to serve sentences and receive treatment. The latter are privately run, but funded and overseen by the state.
Herald journalists examined 10 years of Department of Juvenile Justice incident reports, inspector general investigations and administrative reviews, restraint records, police files and court cases, state inspections, child welfare and prison records, emails, personnel files, surveillance video and handwritten witness and victims’ statements. They conducted scores of interviews with administrators, public defenders, prosecutors, judges, children’s advocates, consultants, parents and youths across Florida. They toured a half-dozen programs in two states and observed juvenile court cases.
The investigation found that for years — long before Elord’s death — youths have complained of staff turning them into hired mercenaries, offering honey buns and other rewards to rough up fellow detainees. It is a way for employees to exert control without risking their livelihoods by personally resorting to violence. Criminal charges are rare.
Of the 12 questionable deaths since 2000, including an asphyxiation, a violent takedown by staff, a hanging, a youth-on-youth beating and untreated illnesses or injuries, none has resulted in an employee serving a day in prison.
DJJ Secretary Christina K. Daly said her agency does not tolerate the mistreatment of youth in its care. “The Florida Department of Juvenile Justice has been and continues to be committed to reform of the juvenile justice system in Florida. We have worked over the past six years to ensure that youths receive the right services in the right place and that our programs and facilities are nurturing and safe for the youths placed in our custody,” she said.
Summary of Findings
- Unnecessary and excessive force used by officers and youth care workers, who outsource discipline by using detainees as enforcers
- Sexual misconduct by staff that goes unreported
- Neglect of medical needs; teens were called “fakers” when they were ill
- Widespread tolerance for cover-ups
- Faulty security cameras
Problems in the System
Low pay, low morale, and poor working conditions were cited as contributing to problems throughout the Florida system. State pay for detention officers starts at $12.25 an hour. Many who are hired lack the proper experience to protect and supervise youths often dealing with mental illnesses, drug addiction, disabilities and the lingering effects of trauma. Put another way, annual salaries are in the area of $25,479.22 a year for a new recruit. The Legislature hasn’t addressed pay rates since 2006 — although it did give current staff a $1,400 raise on Oct. 1, 2017, starting salaries remained the same.
When Florida handed over its residential programs to private contractors, it gave up the ability to regulate pay for employees (unless stipulated in the contract). The contractor, TrueCore Behavioral Solutions, operates 28 Florida programs, more than any other company — it offers new hires $19,760.
Whereas many states insist that employment candidates have college degrees, Florida does not. Workers fired for wrongdoing in recent years have included a former brick mason, furniture salesman, mail sorter, sales rep, a machinist and a boxer. Many staffers share one trait: intimidating bulk.
Personnel screening is, likewise a problem. Individuals with records of violence and sexual abuse have not faced barriers to employment with the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice and its private agencies that operate residential compounds for kids.
The investigation found that hundreds of previously employed prison guards were hired, including individuals who lost their jobs for sexually abusive treatment of colleagues, “improper relationships” with inmates, smuggling in contraband and sleeping on the job.
Florida’s youth corrections system has been a source of shame and scandal since its inception. The Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, the state’s first reform school, was opened in the Panhandle in 1900 as a reform-minded experiment in “intellectual and moral training.” Three years later, boys were found chained in irons.
The state has been the subject of blistering grand jury reports, defended countless lawsuits, ramped up and slashed funding, designed and redesigned new programs — only to see the same abuses recur.
Despite the periodic outrages, those in the juvenile justice system have never gotten the same attention as abused and neglected children — although they are, in many cases, the same children, simply grown older and more damaged.
TrueCore, the private contractor, researched its detainee population. It reported that incarcerated girls are four times more likely than their non-delinquent peers — and boys three-and-a-half times more likely — to have experienced traumas such as abuse and neglect.
For generations, Florida juvenile justice programs were interwoven with the state’s child welfare system in a mammoth department called Health and Rehabilitative Services. The agency operated under a social services model, with foster care and delinquency programs governed by a child’s best interests. That philosophy remained in place even after delinquency programs were spun off in 1994.
But in 2000, the agency turned toward punishment when the Legislature approved an overhaul called “Tough Love.” As Florida grappled with a surge in violent youthful crime, a wave that jeopardized the state’s tourism lifeblood, the emphasis was on “tough.”
“We stopped seeing young people as somebody’s child, but rather as predators to be feared. And the way you deal with a predator is the opposite of how you deal with a child who has made a poor decision,” said Jim DeBeaugrine, an HRS legislative analyst from 1988 to 1997, and then staff director for the state Justice Appropriations Committee until 2007.
The 2000s saw two dramatic shifts: From 2008 until this year, the number of juveniles who entered the system’s custodial care plummeted from 41,002 to 19,491. The reduction coincided with a nationwide drop in youth crime, along with a 2011 Florida law — championed by DJJ — that encouraged police to issue civil citations to some nonviolent youthful offenders instead of arresting them.
At the same time, the Legislature privatized all juvenile justice commitment programs — the brick-and-mortar facilities where youths serve out their sentences. Daly, the DJJ secretary, says this outsourcing has led to greater efficiency and accountability, and more humane conditions.
A 2015 Polk County grand jury report following a riot at Highlands Youth Academy — named Avon Park at the time — saw it differently.
The riot started over a bet on a basketball game. The stakes: a packet of Lipton Cup-a-Soup. The losers refused to pay. Approximately 150 law enforcement officers were deployed, including a SWAT team. Sixty-one juveniles were arrested.
After examining the uprising at the program for boys with mental illnesses or drug addictions, the grand jury labeled it “disgraceful.”
“The buildings are in disrepair and not secured, the juvenile delinquents are improperly supervised and receive no meaningful tools to not re-offend, the staff is woefully undertrained and ill-equipped to handle the juveniles in their charge, and the safety of the public is at risk,” the report said.
The grand jurors noted that boys were running wild, living in buildings with leaky roofs — one still had a blue tarp — because they were never repaired after Hurricane Wilma a decade earlier. The report pointed out that British-based G4S, the for-profit company then running the youth program, had been paid $40 million over five years, including a 9 percent profit margin, or about $800,000 in profit that year alone, to run the camp.
“While the citizens are essentially being ripped off,” the report said, “the juveniles are being even more poorly served.”
G4S was sent detailed information about what the Herald was preparing to publish in this report. The company, which has spun off its juvenile contracts to TrueCore, a firm run by former employees, did not respond.
Fast Food and False Promises
Amid the downsizing, residential programs like Avon Park/Highlands — and the lockups, where youths await adjudication and sometimes scarce beds in the residential programs — have remained a source of trouble. The trouble ranges from improper “restraints” — forcible takedowns by staff — to ham-handed efforts to prevent detainees from reporting abuse.
Fort Myers Youth Academy has been a microcosm, steeped in violence and a culture of coercive cover-ups. The program was placed under a “corrective action plan” in September 2014 after it was found to be manhandling too many detainees.
Rather than stanch the abuse, the head of Fort Myers, Michael Mathews, went to extreme lengths to prevent it from being reported, DJJ inspector general records show.
Staffers told investigators they were forbidden from reporting anything to the state child abuse hotline without permission of administrators — a violation of DJJ policy, which mandates the reporting of abuse and requires that detainees have access to the hotline. Youths claimed they were pressured or bribed — one youth said with chips — to keep their mouths shut.
In April 2015, a 17-year-old clashed with Davis Rios, a youth care worker hired by Fort Myers after he was allowed to resign from his prison job. He’d initially been fired from the prison position for sexual harassment.
Rios swept the detainee’s legs out from under him, tossing him to the floor, wrote Christopher Geraci, a supervisor who witnessed it. Rios then bent the boy’s fingers backward and twisted his shoulder joint behind his back, “causing him to scream in pain.”
The youth had recently broken his jaw, and it was tender. Rios, exploiting the injury, gnashed an elbow into the teen’s wired jaw, eliciting a howl of pain, records show. The boy was “crying and begging Rios to stop.” The teen said Rios had “tried to break his arm.”
When it was over, the youth had his teeth knocked out of place, and his mouth dripped blood. He was sent to the emergency room with a shoulder injury, “multiple” deep bruises and internal bleeding.
Such “pain compliance” moves, permissible in adult prisons, have been banned by DJJ for more than a decade.
Geraci wrote a three-page report describing how Rios “became physically aggressive,” how he had done a “pain compliance technique on [the] youth’s fingers,” and how he’d twisted the teen’s shoulder, “causing him to scream in pain.” And it said he kept going even after Geraci ordered him to stop.
Mathews demanded a rewrite, Geraci later would tell investigators. The statement went from a three-page narrative to one paragraph devoid of detail. Geraci also refrained from calling the abuse hotline as mandated, later explaining: Staff “are prohibited from doing so.”
Mathews “offered no explanation as to why the Abuse Hotline was not contacted after medical documentation supported [Geraci’s claim] that staff Rios manipulated youth’s shoulder with the intent to inflict pain,” the report said. Nonetheless, a DJJ lawyer concluded that there was “no intent on his part to mislead the department.”
The episode remained buried for three months, until DJJ investigators came to Fort Myers to look into another takedown. Soon, more complaints surfaced, including a kid who suffered a dislodged tooth and possible “roof fracture” when he refused to give up his lunch tray, a youth who claimed he was yanked out of bed and beaten for oversleeping, and a report from a teen of “bounties” being offered for beatings.
On Oct. 23, 2015, an inspector general investigator wrote a report in which detainees described widespread abuse and frequent cover-ups. The program physician, Dr. Hala Fakhre, said she was told administrators dissuaded detainees from reporting physical abuse. A former staff nurse, Kandis Kelting, said she quit because of excessive violence and “youths being called liars.”
One boy said Mathews “bribed him with fast food … and false promises” — such as a reduced stay — to hide abuse.
“Things tend to get swept under the rug,” Geraci said in an inspector general report.
Those things included the surveillance footage of Rios’ April 2015 “pain compliance” restraint. Mathews didn’t preserve the video, later explaining that he viewed the video himself and saw “no excessive use of force.”
Rios was terminated in November 2015. Mathews was fired the following year — after he failed to report another restraint. Neither could be reached by the Herald.
The totality of complaints resulted in another “corrective action plan,” this one stipulating that the program report abuse “100 percent of the time.”
Turning a Blind Eye
For going on 20 years, investigators have been dutifully reporting concerns over the system’s outdated surveillance cameras. In July and August of 2000, two Miami-Dade officers were found to have beaten detainees with a broomstick. One boy was hurt, but in both cases the lockup “failed to ensure the video equipment was operating correctly, which prevented review” of the allegations.
The next year, an investigation into a Pinellas County girl’s injured shoulder was thwarted by inoperable cameras.
On June 9, 2003, 17-year-old Omar Paisley died of a ruptured appendix at the Miami-Dade lockup after begging for help for three days. A grand jury later complained that most of the video cameras weren’t working, and those that did “allowed only for real-time monitoring.”
Investigations into the deaths of two other youths, as well as the rape of a third, also were hamstrung by poor surveillance equipment. Shawn Smith, 13, hanged himself while under suicide watch in Volusia County. Daniel “Danny” Matthews, 17, died after being punched by another Pinellas County detainee. And a severely disabled 16-year-old was placed in the care of a sex offender, a detainee deputized to change his diaper. In that instance, the Tallahassee lockup’s tapes vanished before investigators could view them.
In some programs, the equipment was upgraded — but officers quickly learned the blind spots.
At the Okeechobee Youth Correctional Center, the “sub control” center, a glassed-in enclosure, is not covered by cameras, and the glass is darkly tinted. Police said that is where youth worker Mackell Williams brought a 15-year-old on Aug. 16, 2012, to beat him up.
A witness reported that Williams repeatedly punched the boy, then hoisted him in a “bear hug” and slammed him to the floor on his head. The 15-year-old crumpled and initially remained motionless. A co-worker told investigators she “thought the youth might have broken his neck.”
A detainee suggested that the teen needed medical attention, but workers “refused to notify anyone from medical,” a report said. One staffer dabbed the boy’s bloody head with napkins.
He was, in fact, badly hurt. The teen passed out in a classroom the next day from an apparent seizure and was diagnosed at a hospital with head and neck injuries. He returned to Okeechobee only to lose consciousness three days later — and then suffer another seizure the day after that.
DJJ and child abuse investigators concluded that Williams and two others had medically neglected the boy. They also determined that Williams had physically abused him. He was charged with misdemeanor battery.
Williams, six feet tall and stocky, wrote in a statement that the youth was the aggressor and he was “thrown around” by him while he begged the boy to “please let go.” He was acquitted four months later.
Managing the surveillance cameras throughout the juvenile justice system has long been a struggle, DJJ’s Daly said, forcing administrators to balance security needs against privacy rights. “You want kids to have the privacy in their room; you want them to have the privacy in the bathroom,” she told the Herald. She added that the agency can replace the equipment only as its budget allows.
“We are constantly replacing those cameras and the systems. There are a lot that are outdated, and we just have to prioritize and do them as we can,” Daly said. DJJ bought 135 cameras for its detention centers in June 2015 — along with new hard drives and other equipment — and another 100 security cameras the following May. About one-third of those were installed in Miami. Another 40 wide-angle cameras were installed in Miami later that year.
“It would be inaccurate to say DJJ does not take our facility safety seriously,” Daly said.
On a Scale of 1 to 10: ‘Twenty’
The Miami-Dade Regional Juvenile Detention Center cameras were working on the afternoon in 2015 when more than a dozen boys in Module 9 used Elord Revolte as a punching bag. But they weren’t working very well.
The lockup was Elord’s last stop in an odyssey that began at Miami International Airport. He ran away from the airport, fearing that his father was planning to take him to Haiti and leave him there. Elord ended up in a Miami Beach foster home. He ran away from there, too, and had been spotted by other foster kids smoking marijuana in South Beach. His foster mother reported him missing but said authorities didn’t seem interested.
“Nobody really cared,” said Jolie Bogorad.
They did care when, according to police, he and another youth took a man’s cellphone at gunpoint. Elord was arrested Aug. 28, 2015. In general, detainees are sent to the lockup for 21 days to await trial or release, though the time can be extended. Elord lasted three.
Enoch Revolte said he spoke with his son by phone not long before the attack. “He said, ‘Dad, I love you a lot.’
“I told him, ‘If you loved me, you would not be where you are.’ I was trying to practice tough love.”
Those words, among his last to his son, haunt him.
More haunting were the events late in the afternoon on Aug. 31. Elord “stood up without permission” in the lockup cafeteria to get a carton of milk, according to the police report. Detention officer Antwan Johnson told him to sit down. Elord cursed at Johnson, who cut dinnertime short for everyone.
One detainee, 16-year-old L.B., told police he overheard Johnson instruct another boy, T.R., to “punish [Elord] for his misconduct,” prosecutors wrote in a memo that identifies the juveniles only by their initials. “Johnson told the youth, [T.R.], to hit him,” L.B. said.
The boys from Module 9 returned from the dining hall at about 5:33 p.m. Policy dictated that they stand in front of their doors, but they milled around a set of blue plastic chairs in the dayroom, preparing to watch a movie. Video shows two officers present. Johnson is entering a closet. Boris Valcin walks away.
Neither is in position to see what happens next: T.R. slugs Elord in the jaw. Elord’s arms flail in the air.
Valcin continues to walk away when at least a half-dozen detainees leapfrog chairs and converge on Elord. Others join the attack. By the time Valcin turns around, Elord is swallowed by a blur of kicking khaki. Valcin radios a Code Blue, or fight. Johnson enters the scrum and begins to peel off one youth. All told, the assault goes on for 68 seconds.
“The guards was grabbing them and, like, throwing them,” 16-year-old T.R. told police, “but they kept coming back.”
“Stop!” Elord yelled. As staffers disengaged the remaining attackers, at least one stomped Elord’s chest a final time.
When it was over, Elord rose to his feet and declared: “I’m straight.”
Another detainee, D.V., would support L.B.’s claim that the assault was “induced” by a staffer, and said that the attackers were offered food and extra phone calls as rewards. He said he overheard the boys say so.
Elord was placed on concussion alert, and was supposed to be monitored for “repeated vomiting, dizziness, headache, visual disturbances, seizures, confusion, or unusual drowsiness.” DJJ’s inspector general said those instructions were disregarded. Indeed, “no staff had contact” with Elord for hours.
At 10:19 the next morning, Elord told an officer “his chest was stabbing him and he could not breathe.” A supervisor replied that Elord “already had submitted a sick-call.”
When the same officer checked on him later, Elord was “clutching his chest” and asked to see a nurse. The officer told him to be patient. A nurse said he’d be right over but never arrived.
At 3:40 p.m., shortly after shift change, staff called a Code White — medical emergency — and Elord was taken to the nurse’s station. He said he “felt like something was broken in his chest, and it was hard for him to breathe.” The staff did not call for an ambulance, and it took more than an hour for officers to arrange for a van.
Asked to describe his pain on a scale of 1 to 10, Elord replied: “Twenty.”
5:17 p.m.: Elord is checked in at Jackson Memorial Hospital’s emergency room. He says he has abdominal pain. He vomits.
10:40 p.m.: Elord stands over a garbage can and points toward his throat, unable to breathe. In full cardiac arrest, Elord falls into the arms of a nurse.
11:17 p.m.: Elord is pronounced dead.
The medical examiner catalogued his injuries — some overtly evident, some not. His left eye was bruised and swollen; he had an L-shaped scrape to the right side of his face, several red-brown scrapes and a purple bruise on his neck, and bruises to his shoulder. He bled from his thyroid, trachea, both lungs, adrenal gland, rib area and heart.
A tear to a vein under Elord’s left shoulder — which slowly oozed his lifeblood — was the cause of death, along with other “blunt force injury” to his head, neck and chest. It was “a highly unusual injury … more associated with a motor vehicle collision than a fight,” prosecutors quoted the medical examiner as saying.
Manner of death: homicide
The state attorney’s office cast about for someone to charge. Prosecutors considered Johnson, but concluded they couldn’t prove the officer ordered the assault, which he denied.
Nor, they determined, could the youths be prosecuted. Though investigators watched the kicks and punches unfold on the blurry, herky-jerky video, they could not say who delivered the fatal blow. Surveillance equipment was “significantly outdated,” prosecutors wrote. The cameras would need to capture 30 frames per second but recorded only seven.
When technicians tried to zero in, the images muddied. DJJ said it has upgraded the surveillance system.
The state attorney said the lockup’s shoddy record-keeping further complicated matters. The day log is unclear as to how many detainees were in the module. That complicated the task of identifying attackers and witnesses.
T.R. told investigators he punched Elord as payback for an earlier fight, though no such fight had been documented and prosecutors suggested he made that up. Multiple detainees acknowledged jumping in for no particular reason, but they weren’t charged with assault, much less homicide.
After itemizing the lockup’s “inadequacies,” the state attorney’s office concluded they were “beyond the scope of this memorandum, but must surely be addressed.”
In an interview with the Herald, Daly said DJJ has emphasized that detainees can never be deputized to enforce discipline. “I can tell you right now that it is absolutely unacceptable for any of that to happen. I have been very clear with our staff. We’ve had numerous conversations. That is not accepted. It is not an acceptable practice. Period.”
Inexplicably, the state attorney memo closing out the case says Antwan Johnson was terminated for unrelated matters. In fact, he remains on staff.
“These allegations were the subject of investigations by both the Inspector General’s Office of the Florida Department of Juvenile of Justice and the Public Corruption Unit of the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office. Neither of these extensive investigations found Mr. Johnson culpable in the incident,” DJJ said in a statement last week.
Reporters attempted directly and through the department to contact Antwan Johnson but did not succeed.
Revolte expressed shock when a reporter told him that no one would be punished for his son’s death.
“What do you mean?” he asked in Creole. “I cannot understand. This cannot happen. This cannot happen.”
T.R., who freely admitted striking the first blow in the savage attack, was soon freed.
Because his initial explanation made no sense, the state attorney’s office intended to go back and interview T.R. one last time after his release. They thought he might feel freer to talk without fear of retribution by the detention center staff. But on Oct. 18, 2015, less than two months after Elord’s death, T.R. and a friend were shot while standing outside a Southwest Miami-Dade apartment. T.R. was wounded in the leg. The friend was killed. Prosecutors decided to let it go.
The Herald learned that the U.S. Justice Department subpoenaed records of some of the detention center staff involved in the incident, including Johnson.
At least one of the detainees present during the fatal beating was called to testify before a grand jury. Progress, if any, in that investigation is unknown.
T.R. is now in a Miami-Dade adult jail, charged with murder. Police say he shot 31-year-old Alquehen “Sean” Webb Jr., with a Glock .40-caliber handgun on Jan. 10, 2016, as the man sat in a car smoking marijuana. T.R.’s lawyer, Arthur Wallace, said it is a “weak case” and “there’s a good chance he’s completely innocent.”
T.R. is Tyvontae Robinson. He was never identified by name in the police, prosecutorial or juvenile justice records obtained by the Herald pertaining to the lockup brawl. Only his nickname — his handle in the lockup — was disclosed. Fellow detainees called him “Honey Smack.”
The state claims juvenile arrests are at a 30-year low in Florida — but neglects to mention that crime overall is at a 30-year-low both state- and nationwide. The DJJ noted the Pew Charitable Trusts recently gave the Florida child detention system an award for implementing “evidence-based” programming to help reduce teen recidivism (Iannelli).
But the state’s claims of unfair reporting don’t hold up under the tiniest bit of scrutiny. Even if Florida ran the best juvenile prison system in America, that’s not good enough: In 2016, the U.S. Department of Justice issued a statement demanding that “every youth prison in the country” be shuttered. After a litany of child rapes, beatings, and deaths in Florida, it’s not difficult to see why (Iannelli).
“Fight Club: Dark Secrets of Florida Juvenile Justice,” by Carol Marbin Miller and Audra D.S. Burch, Miami Herald, October 2017.
“After Herald Catches Prison Guards Running Child “Fight Clubs,” State Attacks Reporters,” by Jerry Iannelli, October 2017.
Beatings, rape, molestation, and the Florida justice system let almost every guard involved walk away free without consequences; judges continue to send juveniles into the system despite reported problems. What steps do you think might be taken to bring reforms to the juvenile justice system in Florida?
What about other states? How might citizens ensure institutional accountability for adhering to laws and practices governing custodial care of juveniles?