LAKELAND | A group of residents concerned about juveniles housed at Polk County
Jail has organized to spread information about issues and to press the Sheriff’s
Office for changes.
The group of 20 people, some parents of children who have spent time at the jail, call themselves POLK — Protect Our Lost Kids.
Lisa Jobe, a Polk County nurse and student who leads the organization, said they organized after parents began meeting each other at the jail and at their children’s court appearances. They discovered they had similar concerns about their children’s safety.
“We felt there was nothing we could do to help our children,” Jobe said. “So we came together to help each other.”
Jobe, whose teenage son spent time at the Polk County Jail this year, spoke to The Ledger recently along with Southern Poverty Law Center lawyer Tania Galloni, manager of the nonprofit’s Florida office.
POLK formed before the nonprofit filed a lawsuit against the Sheriff’s Office in March alleging the Sheriff’s Office has committed a number of abuses against children since it began housing juvenile offenders at the Polk County Jail before they go to trial, Jobe said. At least one experience her son went through is described in the suit.
The Sheriff’s Office, which operates the jail, has long housed juveniles who face adult charges. But it began housing pre-adjudicated juveniles from the Department of Juvenile Justice in October 2011 after a state law change made it easier for the county to do so.
In September, the Southern Poverty Law Center requested an injunction to stop the Sheriff’s Office from using pepper spray and to increase supervision. A federal judge has yet to decide on the issue.
Jobe identified her 15-year-old son only by his initials, K.J. The lawsuit alleges a detention deputy sprayed him and another boy with a chemical agent after they refused to stop singing. He was then placed in a “cage” with another juvenile. When they kept singing, a guard allegedly sprayed around the cage’s sides.
During the hearing last month, a sheriff’s captain testified the use of spray in that instance was inappropriate. The captain said the deputy involved was assigned to another part of the jail.
From the start, the Sheriff’s Office has denied allegations of wanton pepper spraying.
Deputies use it when a juvenile physically resists and ignores verbal commands and other techniques to de-escalate a situation, Sheriff’s Office Detention Chief Bryant Grant wrote in a letter to The Ledger editor last month.
“If our only alternative is to fight with an out-of-control juvenile in a room with concrete walls and concrete floors, someone is likely to get hurt every time,” he wrote.
Jobe said part of her mission is to inform people that juveniles formerly housed by DJJ are now at the Polk County Jail. She still meets parents who don’t know.
The group had a candlelight vigil in Lakeland on Sept. 30 that drew about 75 people, she said, and has started a Facebook group.
“Now that there are more people becoming involved and not just parents; it’s more of a unified effort to try to change things at the jail and bring awareness,” she said.
She’s concerned children aren’t receiving education they can use once they leave the jail, and she wants the jail to stop using pepper spray on juveniles.
She also wants constant supervision of children, and possibly even see them moved from the jail.
All juveniles attend an education program run by the Polk County school system that sheriff’s spokesman Scott Wilder described as comprehensive.
“It’s a very professional group,” Wilder said.