By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org
Broward’s juvenile delinquency judges have refused to move into the county’s new $276.4 million high-rise courthouse, while Broward Sheriff’s officials described the building as riddled with security issues, including a “serious escape risk.”
A Feb. 15 BSO internal memo obtained by Florida Bulldog lists 25 security issues or design flaws identified during a “thorough examination of the detention area” of the 20-story structure. Some might seem comical if they weren’t so serious.
For example, the report notes that light switches and thermostats for holding cells are located inside, instead of outside, the cells, giving inmates control.
BSO requested immediate corrective action to remove the switches and thermostats.
“The light switches should only be controlled by staff in the control room,” the memo says. “The temperature should only be controlled by staff in the control room.”
Further, the memo says lighting is adjusted by certain efficiency measures. Those measures “must be removed so that the cell lighting is strictly controlled by staff. Inmates in the holding cells must be visible at all times.”
Assistant County Administrator Alphonso Jefferson said juvenile courtrooms, like other courtrooms, were “built in accordance with approved design plans” signed off on by the court years ago. He nevertheless said the county is working with the sheriff’s office to make the desired fixes.d
“I’m aware of this and these are punch-list items,” he said. “There are punch-list items with any building, items you have that need to be addressed. We’ve had numerous walk-throughs with BSO and we’ve identified these items that are additional.”
BSO declined to comment, except to say that the memo, prepared by Captain Veronica Carroll, commander of the detention department’s Central Intake Bureau, was later updated. A request to see a copy of the updated memo was denied.
Juvenile delinquency judges say no thanks
Apparently not fixable, however, were matters of concern to enough of the county’s four juvenile delinquency judges that they decided recently to remain in or move to courtrooms in the courthouse’s modern North Tower on Southwest Third Avenue in Fort Lauderdale.
“Judge [Elijah] Williams and I went over there and it didn’t take us long to figure out that those courtrooms were not appropriate for juvenile delinquency court,” said Broward Juvenile Court Judge Carlos Rebollo.
Among other things, he said, the new juvenile courtrooms located on the tower’s ninth floor are “very small,” include no jury box where in-custody juveniles are kept while in court and have “holding cells that looked like a prison.”
“You’re dealing with juveniles and the last thing you want to do is put them in an environment in which it looks like they’re in prison,” said Rebollo.
The juvenile holding cells, which do not allow for the separation of male and female inmates, have open toilets.
“The way these things were designed was very institutionalized and the judges were very adamant that they didn’t want these kids to be placed in those holding cells,” said Chief Assistant Public Defender Gordon Weekes, whose office also opposed the new juvenile courtrooms. “They have an open toilet. You put four kids in there and if one has to use the bathroom they have to do it in front of the other three with no partition, and maybe even in front of an adult passing through.”
Fixes would be costly
Weekes said the cost to modify the juvenile facilities to make them acceptable for such work would have been great.
“It’s my understanding after speaking to the county that it would be millions of dollars to fix issues in the juvenile courtrooms,” Weekes said. The courtrooms will now apparently be repurposed.
To date, the new tower remains largely unoccupied. Those that have moved in include the clerk of courts, the state attorney, BSO and probate courts, Jefferson said. March 20 was set to be the date by which most of the judges would move in, but the date was said by two sources to have been abandoned amid an argument between the county and BSO on appropriate security staffing levels.
BSO’s memo addresses a variety of security deficiencies in the new courthouse, the most critical of which was in the sally port, the secure gateway between the jail and court. One issue cited in the report “poses a serious escape risk.” The underline is in the memo.
Other issues include “numerous blind spots” that pose life safety issues, fire sprinklers can be too easily tampered with by inmate, and “in-cell cameras are encased in cheap plastic that is easily manipulated.’’ The detention area also has no Self Contained Breathing Apparatus, a device that can provide breathable air in an emergency.
Of particular concern to Weekes was another holding cell deficiency: a handicap railing that’s “contrary to suicide prevention.”
“Most people think of a jail suicide as someone hanging from an overhead bar, but anyone can wrap a towel around their neck and lean forward. That’s just as effective. I don’t understand why they would allow that.”