Minors in one of the two Social Treatment Centers of the Bureau of Juvenile Institutions (NIJ, in Spanish) must receive six hours a day of educational services, at least two hours of psychological services and meet with a social worker, according to an agreement between the US Department of Justice and the government of Puerto Rico.

However, in 2021, the centers saw the departure of 36 correctional officers as the agency identified a need for 81 officers for fiscal year 2022. Classes are suspended whenever security staffing is insufficient to ensure the safety of teachers, minors and Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (DCR) staff.

The solution for these suspensions has been limited “too often” to leaving homework and printed materials in their housing modules without instructions from teachers, according to the most recent report by federal monitor Kimberly Tandy.

The Department of Education (DE) has 41 teachers assigned to teach classes in juvenile correctional institutions. At the Ponce Social Treatment Center, 20 minors receive educational services, of which seven belong to the Special Education Program. Teaching there was not interrupted between August and December 2021 according to the federal report, but the few custody officers available had to   double shifts to guarantee services. In Villalba, there are 27 students, five in Special Education.

In early November 2021, three youths escaped from the Ponce Center after one of the minors assaulted a correctional officer, snatched the keys to the admissions area and freed two others. The security situation in Villalba looks worse than Ponce’s escape judging by the 41 violent acts, fires, and risk situations during the last quarter of last year because too many officers were quitting their jobs.  

The CPI asked the Department of Correction for a report on the days when classes were suspended between 2016 and 2021, as well as the reasons why they were canceled. In Villalba, there were 47 fewer days of teaching, while in Ponce they had 41 less. Contrary to what the federal report says, none of the suspensions were attributed to acts of violence or lack of correctional officers, but emergencies such as Hurricane María, earthquakes and the pandemic.

One of three educators from the Villalba Social Treatment Center who agreed to interviews with the CPI on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, explained that “if the minors go down from module A [housing], module B cannot go down because there are no officers to watch over those who stay in the other houses. Classes were suspended today because there were no officers; many were doubling shifts.”

The report submitted by Tandy in March 2022 revealed that the staffing shortage “destabilized the educational program at Villalba [Center for Social Treatment] during the last two quarters” of 2021 and “contributed to numerous referrals of institutional abuse and neglect.”

The NIJ has been under scrutiny since a 1993 investigation by the US Department of Justice led to a lawsuit against the government for violating the constitutional rights of the juvenile correctional population. Overcrowding, unsanitary and unsafe conditions, lack of health and mental health services, lack of controls and protocols to prevent violence among the youth population, and the absence of educational services in almost all institutions were some of the findings reported at that time. An agreement of 106 stipulations was reached in 1997. Twenty-four years later, there are 26 stipulations left to fulfill, DCR Secretary Ana Escobar Pabón said.

When Education Can Be Individualized

“Despite being a hostile environment by definition, the confinement environment for teens in juvenile institutions, educational conditions — paradoxically — can sometimes be superior to those in many public schools. For example, the possibility of individualized education.”

María de Lourdes Santiago, chair of the Special Commission for Legislative Monitoring of the Special Education Program.

Before entering the juvenile correction system, 82% of the minors were enrolled in the public education system; 7% had been enrolled in both systems, public and private; 4% only in private school and another 4% took the high school equivalency exams, according to the 2021 Youth Offender Profile. The curriculum for the correctional student population is accelerated and is not structured by semesters, but by contact hours, Interim Secretary of Alternative Education, Yarilis Santiago, said during an interview with the CPI.

Yarilis Santiago, interim secretary of Alternative Education.
Photo by Abimael Medina | Centro de Periodismo Investigativo

Performance is not measured. “We don’t encourage tests, we encourage daily work, in groups or in the classroom. The groups we have here are small, so the teacher can focus on the minors individually because the groups don’t exceed 12 students. We can work more with their academic lag and help that student,” she said.

As soon as a minor arrives at one of the centers, tests are administered to determine their academic needs, Carlos Delgado, the director of the Educational Program at the DCR, explained.

Carlos Delgado, manager of the Educational Correction Program.
Photo by Abimael Medina | Centro de Periodismo Investigativo

The teachers also claimed that they lack teaching materials and janitors, as happens in other schools on the island.

“I have to bring my (own) materials; otherwise, I can’t teach the class,” said one. The director of the school area of the Villalba Treatment Center, Luis Velázquez, denies that this happens in his center and said, “if we lack something, the requisitions are submitted, and we can count on Corrections.”

Luis Velázquez, director of the Villalba Treatment Center’s School Area.
Photo by Abimael Medina | Centro de Periodismo Investigativo

The educators often have to disinfect their areas, “an officer cleans with a boy. Right now, there is no janitor; it looks like a dump,” a teacher said about the Villalba institution. Their colleague alleged that the NIJ’s administration made them sign “a document saying that the rooms and areas are fumigated and cleaned when that’s not true.”

Since 2019, educational materials and equipment, vocational and technical workshops, as well as the teachers needed to address the correctional population are paid from the Department of Education’s budget. DCR handles internet access and classroom equipment.

In 2017, Corrections had a budget of $1,176,560 for the academic area, but in 2018 this allocation suffered a 28% cut. Under the Education’s oversight in 2019, the budget assigned for teaching institutionalized minors was $581,256, and the following year, it was $1,000,329. The budget allocation for 2021-22 is $2,522,098.

Some Officials Prioritize Emotional Health and College Studies

Correctional institutions for minors lack a coordinated and multidisciplinary behavior management system, the federal monitor criticized in her latest report. According to the latest Youth Offender Profile, half of those institutionalized have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder; 13% have a specific learning disorder; another 13% have both disorders, and 4% have an intellectual disability. In addition, 69% of the boys and 100% of the girls have suffered from mental conditions before entering the correctional system.

However, the DCR rewards good behavior with candy or gives access to video game consoles “as programmatic behavior modification activities,” Tandy stated.

Pedro Jiménez, the school director in the Ponce institution, said the minors “need so much support, not only on the academic side, but also reinforcement, working with emotional intelligence. That helps minimize the lack of interest in the school area and the lag.”

Pedro Jiménez, school principal in Ponce.
Photo by Abimael Medina | Centro de Periodismo Investigativo

Edgar Colón Santos, who directs the Social Work area of the Ponce institution, said the minors do not have enough family support and felt bad about often hearing “when are you going to visit me?” during phone calls between relatives and some of the youngsters, who want contact with their relatives despite the restrictive environment.

A worn sign on the frame of a gate with thick gray bars at the entrance to the visiting area in Ponce orders: “Kisses, caresses, or any demonstration of affection that could attract the attention of those present are not allowed.” Colón Santos assured that only eight to 10 visitors come every Saturday, for a population of 20.

Of those few visits, Colón Santos remembers Carmen Oquendo, who traveled for nearly four months from Utuado to Ponce, an approximately one hour drive,  to see her great-grandson every Saturday. Now Oquendo travels every weekend to Villalba, about two hours away, where “my son, because I raised him from the age of six months,” was transferred after another charge was imposed on him after an altercation with a corrections officer.

Edgar Colón Santos, a social worker in Ponce.
Photo by Abimael Medina | Centro de Periodismo Investigativo

“Since arriving in Villalba, thank God, he’s been behaving better. I see him doing much better in his conduct. He is studying, he is focused,” she said about her 17-year-old great-grandson, who is in the tenth grade and is a student in the Special Education Program. “The Special Education teacher told me that they will give him the high school exam if he graduates early. They will help him move on to college or any job or anything he wants to study if he finishes there. He has told me that he likes mechanics, photography, and something like a music promoter,” she added.

Youth completing their high school degree confined in one of these centers can apply for university courses, but the DCR divides the population according to the space available to offer the classes and the academic offer is not standardized among the correctional institutions. In addition, each educational institution or educational service provider establishes its requirements, such as having finished the eighth grade or high school.

An analysis of the contracts for educational services available in Corrections during the last five years shows that the majority (42%) focus on primary education to finish high school. There is the possibility of getting a bachelor’s degree in General Studies at the University of Puerto Rico’s (UPR) Río Piedras Campus, but it is not offered in these correctional institutions for minors. This alternative is only offered to maximum-security inmates who have graduated high school, according to the agreement between Corrections and the UPR.

Tandy confirms what a teacher noted, when she details in her report that those who graduated from high school complained about the lack of activities after getting the diploma as well as their desire to continue with their studies.

“The student isn’t allowed to continue studying. No system says, ‘I’m going to help you get out, I’ll get you a college, check in on your outings, check on your behavior on the outside.’ None of that exists, and the minor goes back to the corners [of illicit drugs sales],” said an interviewed teacher.

According to the most recent Youth Offender Profile, 53% of the boys were previously in a juvenile institution, and 19% of those who are in the juvenile correctional system serve for the same prior offense.

Three years ago, the practice of developing an “exit plan” for each minor was established as part of the Adjustment and Progress Reports that are submitted to the Juvenile Court, Delgado said. However, if the minor completes the time in a center or the case is closed and filed for rehabilitation, they cannot be contacted.

“We identify a school in the community where they will go, or if they already graduated high school, they enroll in a university before leaving the institution. The school social worker has 90 days after graduation to monitor that youth, [for example] if the minor went to the United States, if they’re going to college. They also go out to the community to visit them and monitor how they’re doing,” he said.