The escape, and subsequent capture, of two teenagers from the Hastings Youth Academy on Monday is indicative of ongoing problems at the facility that are proving costly, and potentially dangerous, for county residents, local officials are saying.
Jose Alberto Rodriguez, 18, and 16-year-old Earl Leon Bostic were both captured in Hastings — Rodriguez on Monday night, and Bostic on Tuesday morning — after they were said to have jumped the fence in a recreation yard around 2 p.m.
“That makes three escapes in 62 days,” County Commissioner Jeb Smith said at Tuesday’s regular commissioners’ meeting.
“Yesterday’s breach confirms my greatest concern,” he said. “Not that the facility has problems, but that those problems have not been, and are not being, addressed.”
The recent escapes, he said, leave residents in Hastings and the surrounding area feeling “threatened and insecure.”
Tuesday was the second time Smith has voiced his concerns about the facility, which is run by a private firm called G4S Youth Services LLC for the Department of Juvenile Justice.
The first came at an April meeting following the escape of four teens, one of whom struck a 76-year-old guard in the back of the head in the middle of the night, took his keys and locked him in a room.
Sheriff’s deputies arrested the four about three hours later following a brief pursuit of a stolen pickup truck.
That incident prompted Smith to request County Attorney Patrick McCormack to send a letter to the Department of Juvenile Justice detailing the concerns.
According to the letter, the April escape came less than a month after a March attempt in which two of the same teens managed to get over a fence before being stopped at State Road 207.
McCormack’s letter, sent to DJJ on May 12, asks that the department, among other things, review and report on “the specific mechanisms used to recruit, hire, and train” department and G4S staff that were on site during the first two escapes.
It also raises concerns about a lack of “timely” notification to the Sheriff’s Office following the first escape and asks “what procedures and/or equipment” could have been in place to more quickly detect the escape of the four in April.
“The County has full confidence in the Sheriff’s ability to appropriately respond to an incident; however, timely notice is critical,” the letter says.
Smith said Tuesday he also worries about the cost of that response and the burden being placed on county taxpayers.
The remarks echoed a point made by McCormack in his letter when he asked, “Does the G4S contract have provisions for reimbursement of expenses in such matters, or is there another way of reimbursing St. Johns County taxpayers for the contractor’s apparent failure to properly secure the detainees?”
Sheriff’s Office spokesman Cmdr. Chuck Mulligan told The Record on Tuesday that there was no hard figure for what Monday’s search operation cost, but considerable resources — including fuel, man hours and equipment — were put to use.
“We probably had 50 personnel out there at one point in time,” he said.
Mulligan said costs would include overtime and the operation of the Sheriff’s Office helicopter, which had to be called to the area from the search for a missing swimmer off Porpoise Point.
Other deputies had to be called to the area as well, which means travelling at high speeds with lights and sirens — a situation that, Mulligan said, “increases the likelihood of something going wrong.”
While he said that the Sheriff’s Office was notified “quickly” on Monday, once facility staff realized the two teens had escaped, it did appear, based on information gathered at the scene, that there was a 10- to 12-minute delay between when they escaped and when staff members became aware that they were missing.
The G4S facility administrator did not respond to a calls or an email on Tuesday, but DJJ Secretary Christina K. Daly, said in an emailed statement that her office “takes very seriously the responsibility of public safety and ensuring safe and secure programs for the youth committed to our custody.”
The Hastings facility, which is home to the the Hastings Substance Abuse Program, she said, has been placed on “an admissions freeze and investigation activities remain ongoing for the recent incidents at this program.”
“The contracted provider is required to submit an immediate corrective action plan to address identified critical deficiencies in youth supervision, and the Department will be closely monitoring adherence to the plan,” the statement said. “Failure to adhere to corrective action could result in additional contract action up to and including termination.”
Daly said she has been in contact with Smith as well as St. Johns County Sheriff David Shoar to discuss recent actions taken, including the addition of security outside the fence, increased headcounts, retraining of staff and the repair and addition of “anti-climb mesh wire.”
Shoar acknowledged the conversation during a Tuesday interview, but said he has been “very disappointed” with the recent escapes.
His office, he said, had already been in contact with the DJJ to try and lend a hand in any way it could, but is now looking at other “options” which could include putting Sheriff’s Office personnel outside the facility.
“We’ve got to do something to provide that community with some security,” he said.