Okeechobee, Fla. — A 15-foot chain-link fence surrounds the state's largest juvenile prison, which is located in this remote part of Florida. Before the fence was installed, there were some 300 to 400 escapes a year, with some youths fleeing as many as 30 to 40 times. Tracking dogs were used to recapture them.
Dogs are still used, as are the isolation cells and handcuffs for unruly inmates, though now only a few youths a year get beyond the fence. But the barrier (recently increased from 11 feet to 15 feet) is not the only change here.
Florida is gradually moving away from its old pattern of dealing with youthful offenders, described by Bill Green, assistant program director at this facility, as one of mainly ''warehousing'' the juveniles.
Every state is facing the challenge of what to do with the most serious juvenile offenders. The US Senate juvenile justice subcommittee has scheduled a hearing Thursday on the issue.
The new direction is based on an effort to help offenders regain confidence in themselves and their ability, aided by more practical job training, to live a law-abiding life. It is, says Miami juvenile court judge Seymour Gelber, ''a refusal to accept the status quo . . . [or the idea] that nothing works.''
This facility and a much smaller lockup in a swampy area, also for serious offenders, have been turned over to private organizations. This is something seldom tried around the nation, except with less serious offenders.
Gov. Robert Graham (D) has requested additional funding for health and psychiatric care for the juvenile prison inmates, as well as more social workers and live-in guard/counselors.
And amid charges that treatment of the serious offenders is still too harsh to be beneficial, the state has halted ''hogtying'' inmates, a practice one official says was never state-approved. In this method of control, employees at this prison and another in Marianna, Fla., forced youths to lie down on their stomachs, handcuffing their wrists behind their backs, shackling their legs, and then connecting the handcuffs and leg shackles.
According to Claudia Wright of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), hogtying was in use at the Marianna facility until last year. Officials say it is no longer used in any state juvenile facility.
The ACLU, the Youth Law Center in San Francisco, and the Southern Legal Counsel Inc. are suing Florida officials, alleging that continuing conditions at the state's three juvenile prisons amount to unconstitutional ''cruel and unusual punishment.'' Allegations in the suit include: extreme overcrowding, unsanitary conditions, frequent sexual and other assaults on youth, staff brutality, and use of isolation cells for punishment, not just to regain control of youth temporarily on a rampage.
''We handle the toughest kids in the state,'' says W.L. Brazell, superintendent of the juvenile prison here, now called the Youth Development Center and run by the Jack and Ruth Eckerd Foundation under state contract.
The most common offenses for which youths are sent here (for an average of six months) are burglary and drugs, he said in an interview. Most come from the Miami area. His main challenge now is training new staff hired after the foundation took over last year, he says.
The facility has about 400 youths confined here, he says, which is four times what he would like to see in a security institution. It is also four times the number a national prison accreditation commission recommends. If there were fewer youths, there would be fewer sexual attacks, points out one official here.
The size prevents good individual rehabilition programs, says Jack Levine of the Florida Center for Children and Youth. The three juvenile prisons are too far from the families of most youths and are ''dinosaurs'' that eventually should be closed, he says. But state legislators have shown no inclination to do so, despite a gradual increase in the number of smaller, often open-door facilities for less serious offenders, he says.
No more big juvenile prisons will be built in Florida, predicts Richard Grimm , the state official who makes policy for the juvenile offender programs. More of the smaller community facilities are needed, and four more (plus two more wilderness camps) are being built, he says.
Most youths here live in cottages, but eat in a large dormitory. They attend classes during the day. ''The potential [of the offenders] is so great,'' says one live-in counselor, the Rev. Samson Crum.
Those who misbehave can be sent to an isolation cell, which is about 11 by 7 feet with a concrete platform on which there is a mattress, sheet, and blanket. There is no furniture; only a toilet. The doors are solid except for a small security window and a slot where food is handed through. Cells here are air conditioned and have a high grid-covered window.
Except for one or two hours a day, such youths are held in their cells. Officials say their stay is normally 24 hours at most, but a plaintiff in the law suit claims some have been held in isolation cells in the juvenile prison at McPherson, Fla., for up to 14 days, one even for 48 days.
In one cell, Joe, reading a history book, said he had ''never thought about'' what job he eventually wanted. He added he'd like to be a professional baseball player.
Jack Eckerd, an unsuccessful Republican candidate for governor of Florida in 1978 and founder of a chain of drugstores in the state, heads the foundation now running this facility. He points out that personnel can be fired more easily than when the state ran it. And, he says, programs that don't work can be dropped and new ones started more easily.
He predicts other private groups will run juvenile prisons ''if we are successful.'' The foundation is nonprofit and is spending more on the facility than the state pays them, another foundation official says.