OKEECHOBEE — St. Augustine attorney Rook E. Ringer says she has been approached by the mother of a juvenile currently in the Okeechobee Juvenile Offender Corrections Center (OJOCC) ran by Truecore Behavioral Solutions about alleged abuse at the facility.
“I will be filing a Notice of Intent to Sue, with respect to the apparent multiple state law violations involved and the federal civil rights violations that appear to be going on in this facility,” Ringer said.
Ringer, who is the managing attorney at the Florida branch of Lento Law Group, says she was first contacted by the mother of the juvenile back in July. Previously, the mother says she tried reaching out to the Florida Department of Children and Families to no avail in reporting abuse that occurred the year prior.
“In January 2019 the child alleged that an OJOCC staff member tried to pull down his pants while saying, ‘This isn’t gay. This isn’t gay’,” said Ringer. “In addition, the child alleges that he was beaten on July 4, 2019, by OJOCC staff. Surveillance video from that date shows him calmly walking unassisted, and being taken by a large group of male OJOCC staff members to some area which is off of all of the cameras. Then, about 15 minutes later, the same group of men take him out of the off-camera area, and he is seen being held up by two OJOCC staff-members, as he appears to be having some difficulty walking. I have also seen pictures of the injuries, which include damages to his face and eye that suggest that he was punched in the face repeatedly.
“The child alleges that OJOCC employees routinely use excessive force on the children on a daily basis,” continued Ringer. “That was the initial focus of my involvement in this case, but it has spread now to other issues.”
Ringer says her client alleges the abuse led to the riot that occurred at the facility on Aug. 10. Twenty-four of the juveniles at the Level 10 facility in Okeechobee barricaded themselves into their pods, breaking the glass on the interior and exterior of the pods, and destroyed the furniture, televisions and other electronic devices inside. One of the three pods was flooded due to the inmates breaking a water line in the pod.
The Okeechobee County Sheriff’s Office was dispatched to the facility. After arriving on site, OCSO deputies spoke to the facility manager who informed them that inmates had taken over parts of the facility and had armed themselves with broken glass and other weapons. The TrueCore manager told deputies that the Level 10 facility had no personnel trained to handle a riot and had no protective gear.
“No force was used during the apprehension of the inmates due to the use of sheriff’s K-9s and the number of staff present,” stated OSCO Deputy N. Wenrick’s report on the riot. “After the inmates were apprehended, they were turned back over to TrueCore staff members and placed back into the non-damaged cells.”
Ringer says her client called her when word of the riot started to spread.
“I was contacted by my client who stated that a riot was going on,” Ringer explained, “and that her son had called her concerned about his safety. She alleged that the riot was in response to the actions of TrueCore taken under pretext of COVID-19. That would not surprise me at all, and I am investigating those allegations, which appear to be consistent with other reports that I’ve seen from people who have children at the facility.”
According to Ringer, her client alleges that TrueCore was using the pretext of COVID-19 to keep juveniles isolated for long periods of time, with children isolated for 14 days without any symptoms.
“I called OJOCC and identified myself as a lawyer for one of the children in the facility,” Ringer said when she learned of the riot. “The staff member then hung up on me. My client then called and was hung up on multiple times, including once where a staff member yelled ‘F--- you’ at her.”
The Notice of Intent to Sue being filed by Ringer is a requirement under Florida Statute 768.28, which mandates that people cannot sue agents of the State of Florida or any city or county entity therein without giving them six months to determine the veracity of the claims.
TrueCore officials did not respond to requests for interviews for this article.