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Sunday, July 21, 2024

Safety and Security Issues Continue to Plague MJTC

Arkansas River Valley Business Directory

The privately contracted company Youth Opportunity Investments has been operating the Mansfield Juvenile Treatment Center for 137 days. With the rocky takeover, how has the company fared, and more importantly, have they fulfilled their initial promises to area residents?

Following the takeover, Attorney from YOI, Gary Sallee, stated their company has “great success, and that they have a commitment from the state to make the necessary changes.” Those changes, according to Sallee, had already begun and that the privatized firm has a good track record for containment. In fact, he stated that escapes are practically non-existent. He felt with time the community would see a big change.

Changes came when long-term employees like Director Mark Barton left the facility. Additionally, the center transitioned to an all male facility, housing medium to high risk offenders.

As YOI began implementing their program, the MJTC experienced two more escapes. One escape took place on July 3, and three juveniles escaped on July 9. Those three were arrested in Texarkana, Texas after stealing a vehicle.

The community, city leaders and law enforcement sought answers from the new company and how they planned to restore safety and security.

A meeting with state and YOI officials, legislators, municipal leaders and law enforcement yielded cautious optimism to the new facility’s operations.

During that meeting, DHS revealed a plan to alert residents in the event of an escape. The phone app would send out text notifications to anyone who had signed up for the service. Additionally, a “call tree,” was implemented to ensure that everyone who needed to be informed, would be.

According to Philip Pevehouse with the Sebastian County Sheriff’s Office, they have worked eight incidents since July 1, YOI’s takeover date. Those reports range from escapes, assault and felony battery.

On August 7, an inmate was arrested for assaulting a staff member. According to the arrest report, the juvenile was instructed to attend a group therapy session. However he “wanted to get his hair cut and refused to go.” A staff member attempted to direct the youth, without “placing his hands on him.” The juvenile responded, “…I’m crip gang, you keep talking to me and I’ma flatten you.” Eventually the youth punched one staff member in the chest, and forcefully grabbed the arm of another female employee.

Then on September 15, another juvenile slapped a female staff member in the back of the head, and kicked them. A few days later, on September 18, the Sebastian County Sheriff’s Office again responded to another MJTC incident. This time, according to the report, several staff members were inadvertently struck or purposely attacked while attempting to break up a fight. One staff member stated that she was hit multiple times in the face by one of the juveniles.

In October, another two calls for assistance came into the SCSO. One on October 1, an assault by a juvenile on a staff member, giving them a busted lip. Six days later, on October 7, two juveniles escaped from custody.

On November 10, two juveniles escaped custody. According to the arrest report, they were unaccounted for in the last half hour. Staff had found a pair of pants by the back fence, on the southern area of the camp. While law enforcement were searching, offenders had kicked open three locked doors, and discharged a fire extinguishers in the common area. In the living quarters next door, one of the offenders had broken out the front glass door. “During this the unruly juveniles that remained outside continued to disobey and antagonize staff.”

A staff employee informed a member of the Mansfield Police Department that one of the male offenders had “jumped the fence” earlier. The two were taken into custody at 12:40 a.m. on November 11. The pair were spotted walking on Highway 378, towards Scott County.

The most recent incident took place yesterday, Wednesday, November 13. A juvenile again assaulted a staff member.

According to Sebastian County Sheriff Hobe Runion, their office has not seen a reduction in the amount of calls. “This is not what I would call having it under control,” stated Runion. “Whatever they are doing, it’s not working, and these are serious felony offenders.”

When the juveniles, who are wards of the state, are taken into custody, they end up at the Sebastian County Detention Center. Although Runion admits they shouldn’t be charged with housing these juveniles, he feels that they can “control them better than the state or this company, and contribute to the safety of the community.”

Although it cannot be confirmed, officials suspect that the “anti-climb” fencing failed at detouring escapes. Additionally, the app set up to alert the community of escapes has also failed. Responding law enforcement report that they find it difficult to find “someone in charge” when they are called on scene, and the environment is alarmingly angry towards LEO. “They were flipping us off and yelling “F” the police on this last incident,” shared Pevehouse.

Residents are continuing to call for the closure of the MJTC, citing the continued lack of security and safety within the nearly four months of the take over. Resident Press Editor Tammy Teague, who has spent time at the facility and has had countless interviews with state and local officials on the center said, “We aren’t able to notify everyone, but we try to let as many know as we can when there are things happening. We were insured that there would be better communication, and that just has not happened. The app notifying residents over three hours after an escape has taken place is simply not acceptable. The residents living in and around that area deserve better. Resident Press has a moral and ethical duty to the people and we will continue to make sure our readers are as informed as possible.”

YOI has formed a Community Advisory Board, seeking better relations with the members of the community. Members of that board are Mansfield Mayor Buddy Black, Alderman Rick McDaniel, Shawn Silvey and Huntington Mayor Gary Lawrence.

Senator Terry Rice, who has expressed frustration with the state’s shortcomings, shared that this facility was never supposed to house the level of offenders that are currently there and that the people’s voices need to be heard.

Concerned residents can contact DHS, division of youth services at 501-682-8654.

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