ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. – An 18-year-old inmate is accused of attacking a staffer, who the inmate claimed was having sex with other inmates, this week at St. Johns Youth Academy, according to reports from the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office.
A disturbance described as a “riot situation” led to the Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) shutting down the facility on Avenue D in the St. Augustine area, officials told News4JAX on Thursday. It’s a program for high and maximum-risk offenders between 14 and 18 years old.
“Due to serious concerns for the wellbeing of the youth at the St. John’s Youth Academy and the contracted provider’s complete failure to ensure a safe environment at the program, DJJ has taken immediate action to remove all youth at the facility and has closed the St. John’s Youth Academy program,” DJJ wrote in a statement to News4JAX.
DJJ also said it has terminated its contract with Sequel Youth and Family Services, the private contractor that was running the facility. The Alabama-based for-profit company runs several facilities in Florida and has been under scrutiny in recent years.
“The youth have been moved temporarily to juvenile detention centers and DJJ has prioritized admission of these youth to existing residential commitment programs that are designed to meet their individual treatment needs,” DJJ said.
An incident report states that deputies responded Monday to a brawl at the St. Johns Youth Academy. An arrest report indicates that Timothy Branch grabbed a staffer by the throat and that she almost lost consciousness.
Branch was subdued by other staffers and other inmates and arrested on a felony charge of aggravated assault, according to the arrest report. He was booked into the St. Johns County jail but has since been released, online jail records show.
“I was just frantic,” Yolanda Howell, Branch’s mother, said of his arrest.
News4JAX on Thursday spoke with Branch and his parents, who had just visited him on Saturday. They said he was defending himself. The family alleges the doors to jail pods were opened, inmates started attacking Branch, staff jumped in, and Branch, who had just about 20 days left at the Youth Academy, started defending himself.
The incident report shows Monday’s disturbance started with a verbal altercation between two female staffers over having different security-level juvenile inmates in the same area. Each of the women released their inmates into the same hallway, and that’s when a brawl ensued, according to that report.
The incident report said a staffer got into a fight with Branch, who told News4JAX that the staffer started attacking him.
“And in the middle of that, me and her ended up getting locked on the wall together,” Branch recounted. “And then she proceeded to stab me with her keys, and she was calling me all types of derogatory comments.”
After Branch was subdued, the incident report shows, he told investigators that staff at the facility was allowing fights there and allowing contraband to get in and that the staffer he was accused of assaulting was “sexually involved” with other inmates. The second female staffer made similar allegations about the woman who was assaulted, the report shows.
“It’s sick. I hate to use that, but it’s sick,” Howell said.
Howell shared the contact of a now-former employee at the facility.
“The kids got into an altercation and also got into an altercation with a staff member that did not use proper power procedures to stop what was going on between the kids. I feel like the staff incited the situation that was going on,” the employee, who wished to remain anonymous, told News4JAX.
On Thursday, News4JAX saw a DJJ employee at the facility who declined to comment.
When asked if Monday’s incident could have had something to do with the facility closing, the former employee said, “They were already under investigation by DJJ, so I think that is that was the final straw.”
All of the inmates were removed from the facility. Some will be sent to Volusia County. Those who are of age, like Branch, will be sent to the Duval County jail. Branch’s bond was at $10,000.
Branch’s parents said he was at the Youth Academy to reenter society as an adult.
“Mentally, because the mental scars are going to always be there, they set him back physically because those scars on his face are going to always be there,” said Timothy Branch Sr., his father.
The incident report also notes that the disturbance was caught on surveillance video.