Citizens Awareness Foundation Executive Director Joel Chandler won a public records lawsuit against Youth Services International last week over the company’s violation of Florida’s Public Records Act.
The suit arose out of a November 2013 public records audit of Youth Services International’s Sarasota, Florida office. Chandler asked to inspect and photocopy the company’s certificates of insurance that the company is required by its contract with the state to keep on hand.
YSI, a large contractor for privately owned youth prisons, has been in the spotlight in
recent months over its decades-long failure to adequately care for its charges and protect them from the unwanted sexual advances of its staff. A Huffington Post story revealed that, according to a federal lawsuit filed in October 2013, the top administrator at Thompson Academy regularly made sexual advances toward incarcerated teenage boys in 2010 and 2011 and, on at least one occasion, brought inmates home and into his bedroom. YSI failed to report the abuse that occurred at the Pembroke Pines facility immediately as is required under its contract with the state. In a separate lawsuit in which YSI was the defendant, a female guard at another of its facilities was alleged to have had an “intimate and sexual relationship” with a 14-year-old inmate.
The abuse lawsuits underscore an October Huffington Post investigation that uncovered decades of abuse and neglect at private prisons operated by Youth Services International and other companies run by its founder, James Slattery.
Chandler said that while his court victory is important, YSI’s lack of accountability is worrisome.
“Although I’m encouraged by the Court’s vindication of the public’s right to know, it’s troubling to realize that an organization like YSI is so unwilling to make itself accountable,” Chandler said. “Given YSI’s egregious track record of human rights violations, someone needs to be looking at how they are treating the children in their custody. It seems obvious that the State of Florida has abdicated that responsibility.”
Chandler, in his November audit of the company’s offices in Sarasota, was denied access to the document and told by staff to leave his name and phone number and they would get back to him. Chandler filed the lawsuit in December as an individual and acted as his own attorney until the formation of the Citizens Awareness Foundation.
Chandler asserted his – and every citizen’s — civil right under the Florida Constitution, Florida Statute 119.07(1)(a) and established case law to see the record.
After YSI’s attorney acknowledged that the company was in violation of the statute, Judge Kimberly Carlton Bonner ruled in favor of Chandler and his attorney Abraham Shakfeh, awarding Chandler’s legal fees.
“Every Floridian has a legal right to access non-exempt public records, and courts will enforce that right,” Shakfeh said.
While Youth Services International is a privately owned prison company, it has large and lucrative contracts with the state for a variety of services for youngsters in trouble with the law. Because of these contracts, YSI is subject to Florida public records laws.