The Florida Department of Juvenile Justice signed a $16 million contract last month with a private youth prison company facing a string of troubles in the last year, including official findings of “substantial evidence” of child abuse by its staff.
With the new six-year contract, Nevada-based private youth prison firm Rite of Passage holds more than $60 million worth of contracts with the state of Florida to manage several of DJJ’s residential detention facilities.
The state didn’t sign the contract until February 18, more than a month after Gov. Ron DeSantis took over the administration. Though DeSantis has attracted attention for his departure from the Rick Scott administration in some ways, the new contract marks a continuation of business as usual at Florida’s agency charged with helping redirect the lives of troubled youth. The agency moved to fully privatize its last five state-run residential facilities in 2012 under the Scott administration.
This newest contract came about amid a rash of scandals for Rite of Passage. An employee at one Florida facility in Defuniak Springs called the Walton Academy for Growth and Change was arrested last summer as part of a group sexual assault on a fifteen year old boy using a shampoo bottle, the Miami Herald reported. Despite a video recording of much of the incident, prosecutors decided not to pursue charges against the Rite of Passage employee, Antoine Davis. Bill Eddins, State Attorney for the 1st Judicial Circuit, told the Phoenix in a statement that “there was not sufficient evidence on the video to show that the defendant aided, encouraged, or helped the co-defendant’s,” and declined to comment further.
However, a DJJ Inspector General report obtained by the Phoenix describes the video as showing Davis standing at the door to the room where the teen was attacked, looking in and “doing nothing to stop what is happening in the room,” and even sharing a laugh about it with other youth looking into the room.
The report found there was enough evidence to prove Davis “was negligent in his supervision of youth under his care,” and that he used “unnecessary force” against the sexually assaulted teen after the teen got upset following the incident.
The Nevada-based Rite of Passage has a long reach. The investigative journalism website Reveal reported that Rite of Passage has had agreements with the federal government to house unaccompanied immigrant children. It also operates facilities in several states.
In August, Colorado state officials suspended the firm’s license to operate a facility in Durango, citing unsafe conditions for children. The Colorado Department of Human Services found “substantial evidence” that the company’s employees “committed acts of child abuse,” the Durango Herald reported.
That was only a month after Colorado officials had suspended another Rite of Passage license to operate a detention facility where staff lost control of the detainee population of teenage girls, Denver TV station KMGH reported.
And just days before Florida DJJ Deputy Secretary Timothy Niermann signed the contract with the company, three teenage boys escaped from one of the company’s Arkansas facilities and injured a guard, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported. That was a few months after the newspaper also reported that police were investigating an ex-guard at a Rite of Passage facility related to a repeated sexual assault of a teen held there.
The allegations of abuse and mismanagement all made headlines while the company was competing to manage a state-owned “nonsecure residential facility” in Jasper, Florida for 40 teenage boys. In fact, the sexual assault incident at the Panhandle facility happened the day before the Rite of Passage was due to submit its proposal.
The new contract is the second multi-million dollar deal the state agreed to with Rite of Passage in recent months. DJJ signed a contract with the company for $17.7 million last September for a 42-bed residential facility for boys with developmental disabilities.
DJJ Deputy Secretary Niermann declined to discuss his role in signing the contracts, deferring to the department’s press staff, but did tell the Phoenix in a phone call that “how we bid contracts is very detailed and robust.”
Niermann’s boss, DJJ Secretary Simone Marstiller, told the Phoenix in a statement that Davis’ actions were “reprehensible and inexcusable. Ultimately, the contracted staff person was terminated, the program was placed on a corrective action plan, and DJJ’s Office of Inspector General thoroughly investigated this incident.”
As for signing the contracts with Rite of Passage, Marstiller said that “we will continue to hold contracted providers accountable and will review our procurement practices to ensure we are selecting providers best suited to serve the children in our care.”
DJJ’s selection process included a component that accounted for past performance, but DJJ records obtained by the Phoenix show Rite of Passage was not even the highest scoring bidder, in large part because of its past performance.
In contrast, the top spot went to a Florida group called AMIKids (which has its own history of investigation of sexual abuse incidents) that earned nearly five times Rite of Passage’s score for past performance. DJJ says it couldn’t move forward with AMIKids because the company would not commit to certain state staffing and service requests.
Most of the state’s more than 50 youth prisons are operated by a company called TrueCore Behavioral Solutions.
Despite being a smaller player in Florida’s juvenile justice scene, managing just a handful of DJJ facilities, Rite of Passage’s contracts with the state can be quite lucrative. Under the February contract that lasts through the first half of 2024, the state is paying the firm $223 per bed per day. Even if nobody is sleeping in that bed, the company still gets $213 per bed per day.
In making its bid with the state, Rite of Passage also had the advantage of employing a former insider. Michael Cantrell, who oversees the firm’s Florida facilities, previously worked as a regional director for DJJ for six years, from 2005 to 2011, according to his LinkedIn profile.
The governor’s office did not provide comment on the contract, or answer questions about DeSantis’ future plans for juvenile justice.
A statement from Rite of Passage said the company “is proud to have been selected to operate an innovative program for Florida’s at-risk youth that focuses on robust education, individualized treatment and a state-of-the-art equine therapy program.”
The statement, provided by Rite of Passage director of development Suzanne E. Schulze, also noted the company “follows stringent hiring practices that meet all state, local and federal requirements. We also follow a zero tolerance for abuse, and if an employee acts in violation of this standard, they are immediately terminated. We are proud of our 35 years of work in juvenile services, are in good standing with all our contracting partners, and look forward to continuing to operating a program that helps the youth in our care.”
But Colorado officials told the Phoenix that, due to problems, two Rite of Passage facilities there have remained closed for months, with the license for one facility permanently revoked and the contract for the other facility terminated.
And Rite of Passage has faced a longer history of problems than the flurry of headlines it produced in the last year.
Though the Sunshine State is giving Rite of Passage new business, it has struggled to win over officials at its home state of Nevada. In 2015, Nevada walked away from a contract with Rite of Passage to run a maximum security facility near Las Vegas, citing safety and civil rights problems, the Reno Gazette-Journal reported. That was days after what was the third of a rash of riots at another facility in Northern Nevada, amid a concerted effort by the company to improve its image.
“Unfortunately, this is not a surprise,” said Michelle Morton, the ACLU of Florida’s policy director for juvenile justice. “But we should be demanding better for these kids who are going to come back out into society… If they’re not rehabilitated, the consequences fall on all of us.”
Morton also cast a critical eye on the state’s heavy use of private, for-profit contractors to manage its residential facilities.
“Any time you have a profit motivator for incarceration, you’re going to run into issues where they’re cutting corners to save costs,” she charged.
Rite of Passage Inc, is headed up by CEO Ski Broman, who signed the contracts with DJJ on the company’s behalf. In 2016, the company took in more than $3 million in management fees and salary reimbursements from an associated Nevada nonprofit with a similar name, according to tax filings from the nonprofit with the IRS. The nonprofit also paid Broman nearly $200,000 that year to lease land from him. Rite of Passage did not answer questions about its corporate structure or the leasing arrangement.
“Part of the issue,” Morton said, “is that the state either doesn’t have enough control over these companies, or isn’t using the power they have in these contracts.”
Florida’s contracts with Rite of Passage include a common clause that allows it to terminate for convenience: If it wanted to, the state could get out of its contracts without cause and without any penalty by simply giving 30 days notice.
But more broadly, Florida’s juvenile justice system is in need of a “cultural change” Morton said, adding that it’s logical to exclude companies with checkered pasts from doing business with the state.
“When you have these companies with track records of abuse in multiple states, it makes sense you wouldn’t give them a license, or a contract, to have access to our kids,” she said.
Abuses at youth lockups are not unique to Rite of Passage, and Florida has had a particularly long, horrific history of delinquents being abused in state care, from the infamous Dozier School for Boys to more recent tragedies chronicled in the Miami Herald’s Fight Club series.
Florida’s juvenile justices system also has a disproportionate effect on black youth, who made up 63 percent of Florida’s more than 3,500 youth in residential facilities in fiscal year 2016-17, despite making up 21 percent of the youth population according to DJJ data. They are also more likely to be placed in higher risk facilities.
Liz Ryan, head of Youth First Initiative, an organization working to end youth incarceration, said in an interview with the Phoenix that abuses are bound to keep happening if the state keeps relying on what she described as a “coercive model” of taking youth out of their homes and communities.
“The youth prison model has been in place since the early 1800’s and it has never worked,” she said. “It isn’t safe, isn’t fair, doesn’t work, and can’t be fixed. In youth prisons, youth are at high risk of physical and sexual abuse and it increases the chances that they will enter the adult criminal justice system.”