Emory Jones need only glance at his left arm, strong and tattooed, for a harsh reminder of what Avon Park Youth Academy wrought: a faint, garden snake-shaped scar above the bend of his elbow.
That’s the spot Jones chose for the worst of the blows that came from a stern juvenile worker named Uriah T. Harris, who was determined to beat the bad words and bad behavior out of him and other confined youths.
Jones and other teens interviewed by Department of Juvenile Justice investigators said Harris insisted that the boys accept responsibility for misbehavior.
Never miss a local story.
“He claimed that all youths were ‘Master Manipulators,’ ” one report said. A termination report said he was “defensive” when confronted with the youths’ allegations, and asked: “How do we know the kids did not do this themselves?”
Harris provided a statement denying “that he struck youth with a broom handle [or] made them do push-ups or sit-ups as alternative punishment.” He’d been hired by British-based G4S in August 2011 at $9 an hour despite a rap sheet that included busts for resisting arrest (twice), domestic violence, aggravated battery, failure to appear, withholding child support and child neglect. The Miami Herald was unsuccessful in reaching Harris.
His employment application shows a work history making potting soil, mixing pesticides, driving a forklift — and a two-year tour at a DJJ-run youth program in DeSoto County, which he said he left while recovering from a bad marriage.
The Miami Herald provided G4S — the private company that operated Avon Park — a copy of Harris’ Florida Department of Law Enforcement arrest history. The company did not comment. DJJ Secretary Christina K. Daly said it “is completely unacceptable for any staff member, whether DJJ or contracted provider, to discipline youth in the manner utilized by Mr. Harris, which is why he was fired.”
Daly added: “While Mr. Harris met the statutory requirement for hiring as he was never prosecuted for a disqualifying offense, we expect discretion and common sense to play a role when evaluating every potential staff member. We have been in contact with G4S to clearly explain our high expectation when evaluating potential staff.
“DJJ and our contracted providers should be 100 percent confident that each hired staffer is appropriate and committed to ensuring youth are treated with dignity and respect.”
Jones — now 21, on probation and contemplating a career as a truck driver — began his burglary gig as an aspirational 14-year-old. He said he ripped off homes because he wanted nicer things than his family could afford. With a group of friends, he was caught by police in 2011. It was his first burglary, he said.
By 2013, facing more burglary charges, the Fort Lauderdale teen was on a bus headed to Avon Park, 37 acres so foreign to him that, he would later write, it was a blur of “trees, cows, the woods and horses.” While some juvenile justice programs around the nation emphasize keeping detainees close to home and family, Florida does not.
It was a troubled time at Avon Park, a secluded youth camp on the grounds of the U.S. Air Force bombing range in rural Polk County — the scene of an infamous riot in August of that year. Detainees took over the compound and trashed it.
SWAT teams, air support and K-9 units from four departments were called in to restore order.
Later, a Polk County grand jury blamed mismanagement, but didn’t address whether broomstick beatings might have fueled tensions. Rather, it decried the “lenient treatment” of detainees.
Jones, who was present during the disturbance, shared his written recollections of Avon Park with the Miami Herald. The diary describes his first days:
“The ride [to Avon Park] was scary not know[ing] where I’m at or going... Finally made it to the program, I was in the mind frame of doing 6 months and going home. Everything changed when they told me I had to do 9 months.”
One night in the summer of 2013, Jones and a group of young men were in a common area playing video games, cursing and talking trash, Jones said. Harris heard the profane language and calmly offered a choice: licks from a broom that Harris — and, later, the boys — nicknamed “Broomie,” or demerits that could lengthen their stay at the all-boys Avon Park, later named Highlands Youth Academy.
Jones — 5-foot-10 and more than 200 pounds, with a defensive lineman’s thickness — chose Broomie.
“We would curse and Mr. Harris would get upset and give us a funny look. Eventually he got tired of it and one day just grabbed the broom and said for every curse word we say we get hit two times...anywhere you want it chest, back, arm, legs, everywhere….A lot of time, because of me having [keloid] skin, I would swell up and bruise.”
Harris, then 43, handed out so much punishment using Broomie that the boys came to accept it as normal, Jones said.
“Everybody gonna curse when you’re young. He’s trying to teach us to stop cursing or stop using inappropriate language,” said Jones. “So everybody, everyday, almost everybody gets licks. ... I would take the hit rather than the time.”
“I am thinking about it as, ‘I am lucky I am getting these two licks from this broom before these two weeks,” he said. “I am ready to go home and I ain’t trying to be in here longer than what I have to.”
DJJ investigated three complaints against Harris, sustaining all of them. In the last case, dated Sept. 4, 2013, a youth told investigators that Harris came in his room and said he had four licks coming for taking extra snacks while on cleaning detail. “You can take it now or you can take it later,” were Harris’ words, according to the boy. He said he was hit twice on the legs and twice on his right arm, leaving bruising and red marks.
“Supervisor Harris was not malicious in offering of punishment; rather, he offered it in a light-hearted manner as an alternative to receiving demerits for their behavioral activity,” an administrative review quoted one boy as saying. “He believed Supervisor Harris was exercising best intentions to benefit the youths.”
As if to excuse his reporting the abuse, one boy said “he just did not like to get hit,” Harris’ termination report said.
In an interview with the Miami Herald, Jones used his finger to trace the outline of his scar. “It would burn and itch,” he said. “He gonna make sure you feel it ... but gonna make sure you don’t go to the hospital or it don’t show.”
The licks finally got to be too much. Jones picked up the phone.
“On that particular morning, he was crying. ... He kept saying, ‘I can’t take it no more, I don’t know what to do,’ ” said Jones’ mother, Andrea Young. “He finally said they were beating him, the man was hitting him with a broom. He said he beats us with a broom if we curse or do something we are not supposed to do.”
Young cried that morning, too. And she cries again in recounting the story.
“I kind of felt hopeless and felt really bad, because when he first went in the program, I told him this place is really here to help you. They are going to make sure you get everything you need .... You’re gonna be on the right track,” Young said. “I told him to trust them and I told him to do what they tell you to do and try to fix yourself, work with them and let them fix you and help you to get better.’’
Though DJJ concluded that Harris used “a broom handle to strike a youth as alternative discipline,” he was never criminally charged. His punishment was the loss of his job.
The Herald was unable to reach him for comment.
From Jones’ diary: “There’s a lot of things that my mom told me that I would be getting help with. She also said there would be people that I can always talk to at anytime. She promised me it would make me a better person. But it didn’t.”