The abuse of Georgia’s imprisoned children was so bad by 1998 that the U.S. Justice Department threatened to take over the eight state youth prisons and 22 youth jails, says the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The department issued a scathing report demanding an end to “egregious conditions” that violated children’s constitutional rights. Atop the list was the “failure to provide mental health care” to the 61 percent of youngsters locked behind bars with psychiatric disorders. The state Justice has made significant progress, a federal monitor reports. Recently there have been signs of backsliding, including overcrowding in youth jails and prisons, the abrupt firing of the agency’s head of mental health services, and the temporary closing of the Augusta youth prison, site of the largest mental health unit for delinquent boys. “Augusta needs to be reopened as soon as possible,” said James Austin, hired in 1998 by the U.S. to monitor the case.
Today Georgia has satisfied all but 10 of the original 117 citations, according to Austin’s final report, issued in February. The biggest problem remains the department’s inability to recruit and retain staff qualified to treat mental disorders. “They’re just not able to pay people competitive salaries to attract competent people,” Austin said. Martinez was fired in August by recently elected Gov. Sonny Perdue. His successor, Albert Murray, fired Frank Berry, chief of mental health services. In February, Murray suddenly closed the troubled Augusta youth prison over a contract dispute. Without notice, more than 60 youths suddenly were packed up with their belongings and put on buses to an unfamiliar youth jail in Atlanta. “I absolutely plan to reopen Augusta before the end of the year,” Murray said. “The sooner the better.”