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Coalition calls on governor to close Cheltenham Youth Detention Center

www.closecheltenham.org

A coalition of juvenile advocates yesterday called on the General Assembly and Gov. Parris N. Glendening to take steps to close a 129-year-old juvenile corrections facility in Prince George’s County, saying it is overcrowded, understaffed and would be a “cinder block and iron oven” in case of fire.The organizers of yesterday’s news conference said that Glendening should close Cheltenham by March 2002 and transfer most of its residents, who are from Baltimore City, to the new 144-bed juvenile facility being constructed in Baltimore. They also said that a smaller new facility should be built on the Cheltenham site to serve Prince George’s County and Southern Maryland.Opened in 1872 as the House of Reformation for Colored Boys, Cheltenham has a recent history of rapes, stabbings and beatings, according to the Maryland Coalition to Close Cheltenham.“Steve,” who says he has worked at the facility for at least three years, participated in yesterday’s conference call and verified the horror stories the advocates told.“It seems almost unbelievable, but I can tell you this is an understatement of what [goes on] on a regular basis,” Steve said. “Cheltenham for me represents all the failures a system can fathom in one place.”Cheltenham houses boys aged 9 to 17. Most are there for non-violent crimes, advocates said. Some are held briefly before adjudication, but many are held there after adjudication, staying for more than a year while they await assignment to other facilities.Advocates called Cheltenham “a death trap” and said that the decrepit facility has “dead-end corridors” and lacks a sprinkler system for subduing fires.“In the over three years I have been there, there has not been one single fire drill” because of personnel shortages, said Steve, who called the facility a potential “cinder block and iron oven.”The organizers who sponsored yesterday’s news conference call said that in addition to falling far short of modern safety standards, Cheltenham suffers from chronic staff shortages.The personnel shortage is disguised to some extent because Cheltenham’s teachers get counted as staff. However, there is constant personnel turnover and a teacher may have as many as 100 students.“There is no consistency in the educational system,” said Bruce Davis, a teacher in the Prince George’s County public schools who once taught at Cheltenham.The personnel shortage spills over into all areas, Davis said, and even though many of the juveniles suffer from alcohol and substance abuse, Cheltenham often goes for long periods without a trained counselor on staff.Other advocates spoke of dozens of juveniles under the supervision of only one or two staff members. One told of seeing seven juveniles who had tried to commit suicide being overseen by only two attendants.Vincent Schiraldi of the Maryland Juvenile Justice Coalition said he has seen as many as 100 juveniles packed into a cell room meant for 26 residents.Schiraldi said that these conditions would not be permitted if the juveniles came from white suburban families, but 81 percent of Cheltenham’s residences are black, according to Schiraldi.“It is a virtual sea of black faces,” said Schiraldi.Awaiting Robinson’s reportDepartment of Juvenile Justice Secretary Bishop L. Robinson said last month at a joint hearing of the House Appropriations and Judiciary committees that he plans to cut the number of offenders housed at Cheltenham from 252 to 156.Glendening’s press secretary, Michelle Byrnie, said yesterday that the governor has not decided on the future of Cheltenham and is waiting for Robinson to complete a report on the facility.The close-Cheltenham group intends to ask the legislature next month to transfer funds designated for Cheltenham to other juvenile justice programs. To advance their position, they have started a new Web site, www.closecheltenham.org, to tell the public about Cheltenham.Steve said he would lose his job if Cheltenham is cut back, but he supports the move.“These kinds at some point are going to be released back into the system,” Steve said, and Cheltenham is doing nothing to rehabilitate them.