The fathers of two teenage girls thought the county jail tour was just an opportunity to show them what a jail looked like and perhaps deter them from committing crimes as adults.
But now the parents are livid about what they say was physical and verbal abuse inside the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Detention Center during a tour Saturday morning, and they said corrections officers just “shrugged their shoulders” when they saw female inmates grope, shove, berate and even hit the teenage girls.
“It’s just terrible – the things these inmates were allowed to do,” said Martin Ridens, whose 16-year-old daughter, Tia, was on the tour.
“For these people to think they can just take any inmate – the worst inmates – to interact with their kids is just appalling.”
An MDC spokeswoman said that officials are investigating, but that so far they have not found anything to substantiate the allegations.
Also, the state Children, Youth and Families Department has temporarily suspended all referrals to the organization that provides the tours, Metro Teen Court, until the allegations can be investigated. A CYFD spokesman didn’t know how long the investigation might take.
The Metro Teen Court program takes groups of teens who have been through the juvenile justice system on a tour of the jail to show them what adult detention centers are like, including making them eat jail food, look inside cells and wear jail garb.
An online description of the event said that inmates are encouraged to scold, but not touch, the teenagers who walk through the halls, and it says that some inmates might be brought out of their cells to talk to the teens.
But Tia Ridens, 16, told the Journal that one inmate punched her several times in the buttocks and ripped her jumpsuit when the inmate decided she wanted her socks. Another inmate berated her when Ridens mentioned that her mother died two weeks earlier.
“You look like the kind of (expletive) that would deserve her mom dying,” Ridens quoted one inmate as saying.
Ridens also said other female inmates came out of their cells to harass the group, and the guards did nothing when the group of six to eight teens complained. Ridens and another girl in the group said the inmates were able to request being let out of their cells and could ask for others to be let out to talk to the teens.
She said the girls also were walked through the men’s pod, and male inmates catcalled them, called them “whores” and made sexual innuendoes and advances from inside their cells.
Ridens also described other confrontations that she said happened between the girls and female inmates who had been allowed out of their cells:
• One inmate grabbed the jaw of a girl, who spoke only Spanish, and berated her for not answering a question that was asked in English.
• An inmate pushed the face of another girl to the side and demanded she look at the inmate when she was talking.
• One other girl’s glasses were removed, and the inmates joked about stealing them.
That girl, Alexis Peele, 16, said she recognizes that the tour was supposed to demonstrate the conditions of the jail as punishment for her actions. Peele and Ridens were caught at a party where alcohol was being served, they said.
“I understand that it’s supposed to be a punishment,” Peele said. “But why were these inmates in our faces and touching us?”
Joseph Dorn, Metro Teen Court’s former executive director, declined to comment generally about the program Tuesday, and it’s not clear who heads the group now. However, an online instruction and invitation form that Dorn wrote said the program is aimed at giving the teens a chance to see where their lives are headed.
“The inmates speaking to them have the biggest impact of all. I don’t tell the inmates what he or she can and cannot say. I do tell them that they are not allowed to touch them,” Dorn said in the online description. “… We have a good program; I don’t know how many kids it may or may not change their ways. If we reach one, that’s better than none.”
Peele’s father, Dave Gill, said he signed the permission form early Saturday before the girls got into vans to join the tour. He said he was under the impression that it wasn’t a “scared straight” tour, meaning that the girls would simply look at the jail.
“I signed the permission slip thinking my daughter was going to get a tour of where she’s gonna go when she gets in trouble, not physically and verbally abused by dangerous inmates,” he said. “That’s what a ‘scared straight’ program is.”