DETROIT (WXYZ) — Behind the walls of the Wayne County Juvenile Detention facility downtown, a quiet crisis unfolds every day.
“You go there and you say, ‘I’m going go do my job.’ But I don’t want to risk my life while doing it,” said Adria Johnson, who spent more than two years working inside the facility, known as the JDF.
In May, the detention center was the site of a riot that lasted nearly an hour and involved nearly 20 juveniles who escaped from their cells.
Today, current and former JDF staff are blowing the whistle on a problem they say has gotten so bad, it has put both residents and staff in harm’s way.
Even though the residents at the facility are under 18, many of them are accused of the same violent crimes as jail inmates housed across the street, including carjacking, felonious assault and murder.
For more than two years, Adria Johnson worked inside the JDF as a juvenile detention specialist, tasked with keeping residents and staff safe.
'The bottom fell out'
When she started, she was impressed at how well the facility was run and staffed, but says everything changed starting with the pandemic.
“It just seems like the bottom fell out,” she said. “Per shift, I would say we were easily down 15 to 20 individuals.”
Staff quit in droves, while the number of residents began to rise.
Even though there were fewer staff in the building, more of them were sustaining injuries.
Since 2019, the number of staff attacked inside the JDF has more than tripled, from 11 in 2019 to 35 just last year.
A current JDF employee spoke with 7 Action News under the condition that his name not be disclosed, as the county would not grant him permission to speak publicly.
“Sometimes, there’s only one man in the building,” he said.
“We move as a team to feed (the residents), where all the staff will go to the pod and we’re all there to show a sign of force, because typically we don’t want the kids to know how short-staffed we are. They already know we’re short-staffed.”
The JDF is made up of 10 pods that house up to 20 residents in their own locked rooms. Two detention specialists are supposed to be assigned to each pod, but because of severe understaffing, most pods are lucky to have just one.
“How often were you the only employee working on a pod?” asked Channel 7’s Ross Jones.
“Daily,” Johnson responded. “All five days of my shift. I was the only person on a pod and sometimes watching multiple pods. “
Destany Moore worked as a detention specialist until 2020 before returning to the facility as a probation manager.
“I would literally go to the pods and there would be no staff at all and I’m like, hey, where’s the staff?” Moore recalled. “And the kids are telling me: there’s no staff over here.”
Frequently, residents would escape their rooms by jamming something in their door or manipulating the lock itself; what staff termed “popping locks."
“How often were they popping locks?” Jones asked.
“Almost every other day, every week,” Moore replied.
To try to mitigate escapes, staff recently added secondary locks to the doors, but residents still found ways to get out of their rooms.
“Now they know how to unlatch them,” said the current employee. “What do we do next? Started putting duct tape over them to make them harder to unlatch.”
On May 28th of this year, things got as bad as they’ve ever been when a resident was able to pop his lock and gain access to a guard’s keys triggering what some staff termed “a riot.”
“He was able to get out of his room first and the let other residents out of their room,” Moore said, “and they completely damaged anything inside on the pod.”
Staff feared for their own safety, according to an internal investigation, with a supervisor telling staff: “We are outnumbered.”
All staff—most of them women— were ordered off the floor. At least one refused, coming to the aide of “resident(s) being beaten,” according to the internal report.
The riot lasted nearly an hour. By the time it was over, 18 juveniles had escaped from four different pods, 2 needed medical treatment and thousands of dollars in county property was destroyed.
“Why did it have to get to the point where we have a riot?” Moore asked.
'She doesn't have a clue'
Melissa Fernandez is the Division Director of Wayne County Juvenile and Youth Services who spoke with 7 Action News about the understaffing inside the JDF.
Even though she knew our interview was about understaffing and safety concerns, she was unprepared to answer even basic questions o, in some cases,r provided information that was simply wrong.
In response to a question about how many juvenile detention specialists are currently working, Fernandez said she would have to check with personnel about exact numbers.
“We have about 75% (of positions) filled, there are 25% vacancies as of today,” she said.
But the true numbers are much worse than that.
Of 109 budgeted positions for juvenile detention specialists, only 41 are filled today, according to a count spokeswoman, meaning 62% of the positions are vacant.
Often, the staff tells us there is only one male staff member working on a shift.
“Is that safe?” Jones asked Fernandez.
“There is no requirement across the State of Michigan when it comes to childcare and institution rules that dictates that that cannot be staffing pattern,” Fernandez replied.
“I understand, but this is not typical childcare," Jones said. "We’re talking about people who have been charged with violent crimes including murder, so is it safe?”
“I can’t answer that,” Fernandez said. “I can’t answer that.”
We shared Fernandez’s response with a current employee.
“Unbelievable!” he said. “So she’s basically saying she doesn’t have a clue. There’s no way she doesn’t know that…the entire building knows how bad it is.”
Fernandez said the county is doing its best to manage a problem affecting facilities nationwide.
They are aggressively recruiting to hire new employees and believe at least some of today’s problems will be lessened when the county opens the new justice facility off I-75, hopefully a year from now.
But too many employees have grown tired of waiting for help to arrive. Aidra Johnson quit earlier this year, and knows more will follow her out the door.
“It’s a matter of time before someone is severely hurt,” she said. “Something needs to change.”
On Monday, staff endured their latest attack after three juveniles were able to escape from their rooms. A female detention specialist was punched in the face, later requiring medical attention.
Wayne County Sheriffs deputies were called to restore order.
Contact 7 Investigator Ross Jones at email@example.com or at (248) 827-9466.