This article has been updated and corrected to better contextualize information about the capacity of the Dickerson facility. A previous version of this story said the facility was overcrowded, but it is not yet at capacity.
State officials increased oversight of Wayne County’s juvenile detention operations this past March and again in June because of serious lapses in basic care. The young people living in the crowded facilities have been denied showers, recreation, medication and education, according to an ongoing Detroit Free Press investigation.
The Free Press is continuing to document conditions at Wayne County’s juvenile detention facilities with the help of the Detroit Documenters.
Last October, county officials judged conditions at the JDF in Greektown to be so bad it relocated all the young people detained there to the William Dickerson Detention Facility, a former adult jail in Hamtramck. Poor living conditions have continued to be documented at that facility.
The county is required by state law to provide the young people staying at the facility with medical, mental health, educational and other services while they wait for a legal hearing. The waiting period for a trial can vary from a few days to a few months long. Some young people need to be transferred to another facility after their legal proceedings conclude, but are often stuck at the facility for months.
Overcrowding is still a potential issue at Dickerson. There is a statewide shortage of available treatment facilities for young people contributing to overcrowding. As of July 20, the facility is home to 152 boys and girls between the ages of 9 and 17, according to Tiffani Jackson, spokesperson for Wayne County. The facility has a capacity of 180. Of these young people, 60 have already been adjudicated and are awaiting transfer to other facilities, Jackson said.
In March, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services began monitoring the facility after Wayne County declared it a public health emergency. State officials reported then that conditions were “highly concerning” and that county employees were not regularly checking on the young people living there.
The county lifted the emergency order on June 5. On June 20, the state reinstated 24/7 monitoring of the facility after an incident that it is investigating. It has refused to provide any additional details on the nature of this incident.
Wayne County has the largest of the state’s 26 county or court-operated juvenile facilities. There were 1,260 young people admitted into the Wayne County juvenile system last year, Jackson said.
Monitoring the hearings young people attend after being detained in the facility is key to understanding and monitoring the conditions there. The Detroit Documenters are monitoring these hearings.
“Coverage of these hearings are important because they often reveal details about the conditions of the facility that we otherwise wouldn’t have known about, as well as giving us a greater understanding about how the system is working as a whole,” said Christine MacDonald, an investigative reporter at the Detroit Free Press.
Detroit Documenters have been covering juvenile court cases for the last five months in collaboration with the Detroit Free Press. Judges were informed in advance of this coverage and that Documenters will observe some hearings.
The hearings are public and can be accessed through Zoom. Usually, only family members and lawyers are present.
The juvenile corrections system is more restrictive of releasing young people’s records and personal information than that for adults. The 2021 state law restricts public access to juvenile court records except for people with “legitimate interest” like the young person, their parents or legal team. Before this law passed, juvenile records were generally public but now the law protects names and case details of young people who are in and out of the juvenile system.
Because reporters cannot discover the names of young people in the system or the charges against them, the best way to discover this information is through watching hearings in real time. Recording is generally not permitted because of confidentiality concerns. Documenters write down the name of the young person accused of a crime but only share those names with Free Press reporters.
Documenters and their editors remove all identifying and confidential information from their notes before they are published online.
Behind the scenes of documenting a juvenile court hearing
Wayne County’s juvenile hearings take place at the Lincoln Hall of Justice in Detroit, but have been conducted virtually since the pandemic began. They are scheduled almost daily and start around 8:30 a.m. Hearings then continue throughout the day. Sometimes several hearings happen at the same time across different virtual courtrooms.
The hearings are presided over by a judge or referee. There is a prosecutor there on behalf of Wayne County, and the young person is defended by a public defender or a private attorney. The young person also joins virtually through Zoom from wherever they are located, which can be at home with a tether or at a detention facility. Some young people will have a few hearings, and some will appear before a judge several times.
Documenters have published nine sets of notes containing around 30 cases over the course of four months. The Documenters take note of as many details as possible including case numbers, names, what the young person is accused of and charges each young person is facing, for example.
Documenter Bridget Scallen said the defense attorney during one of the hearings didn’t seem to trust her promise to respect their client’s privacy and asked the judge to make her leave, which the judge did.
At another hearing, Scallen documented two young people who said they were in physical pain but not getting medical care at the detention facility.
“It was appalling to me that society would treat anybody like that, especially a child or juvenile put in the detention facility, without giving them basic medical care,” Scallen said.
Some parents have brought up safety concerns about their children being housed at the facility at court during the hearings.
Scallen said one mother mentioned her concern for her child’s safety, and the judge moved the conversation into a Zoom breakout room. Scallen said this shut her out of reporting the mother’s concern and how the court may have addressed it.
Documenter A J Johnson said some of the young people don’t seem to entirely understand the court process. Johnson said the judge and defense counsel use legal jargon they don’t clarify or explain, and that even she finds difficult to understand. She said the attorneys for the young people don’t always seem particularly engaged.
“It’s like they’re doing the minimum,” she said. “They’re there. They show up, but there’s not much time and that’s a problem.”
The state’s Task Force on Juvenile Justice Reform’s 2022 report says that there is no proper monitoring to ensure that juveniles are receiving adequate defense services.
Johnson has documented nine cases over three different days. In only two of those cases have attorneys requested additional services for their clients like GED completion, therapy or substance abuse treatment. Those requests were granted.
“If the attorney (who represents a young person) doesn’t speak up, it doesn’t happen,” she said. “These young people don’t know enough to request it.”
Documenters and the Free Press plan to continue covering many more hearings until there are significant improvements in the conditions at the county’s detention facilities. The Free Press’ investigations and Documenters’ detailed notes on the juvenile hearings can be found online.
“It’s important to know how we treat our most troubled in society,” Johnson said. “These articles and notes serve to inform, educate and hopefully provide insight into how we can improve how we adjudicate and provide assistance to troubled youth so that they can become productive members of society.”
For questions or concerns related to Wayne County’s juvenile system, reach out to Free Press reporter Christine MacDonald at firstname.lastname@example.org or Outlier Media reporter Malak Silmi at email@example.com.