Riot at juvenile correctional facility near Avon Park triggered by fight over cups of noodles

150 deputies called in to restore order

AVON PARK, Fla. - UPDATE: Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd said a riot triggered by a bet over noodles at a correctional facility Saturday night could have been stopped if staff had been given the proper tools, such as pepper spray.

By rule, employees with the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice are not allowed to have certain "specialty tools" Judd told reporters on Monday.

Judd is at odds with the state when it comes to such specialty equipment.

The riot broke out following a basketball game between two teams, one from St. Petersburg and the other from Orlando.

"For less than a dollar's worth of noodles, we ended up with a riot," Judd said.

The investigation is still in the early stages.  Judd said those responsible will face felony charges.

The riot caused tens of thousands of dollars in damage, Judd said.

He added the state will be getting a bill for services provided by the Polk County Sheriff's Office.

PREVIOUS REPORT: A reneging on a bet for cups of noodles triggered a riot and takeover by juveniles at a correctional facility in rural Polk County for several hours Saturday night.

"This was a full blown riot," said Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd.  "I watched them throw objects at us and our deputies.  I watched them break windows."

According to the Polk County Sheriff's Office, the all-male Avon Park Youth Academy in a rural area near the Highlands County town of Avon Park, but in unincorporated Polk County, was taken over by juveniles housed there around 8:30 p.m.

150 law enforcement officers, including many in full riot gear, were called in to restore order after the greatly outnumbered staff was overrun.

CLICK HERE to listen to the 9-1-1 call

The preliminary investigation showed two teams of five juveniles from St. Petersburg and Orlando, respectively, made a wager of three Cup Noodles soups for the winning team of a basketball game at the facility.

The youth academy, maintained by the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice, but run by the private correctional company G4S, houses juvenile delinquents from across the state.

When the St. Petersburg team lost, the players refused to pay their cup of noodles and a fight broke out between the teams. Others in the area joined the fight, triggering a riot that was not brought under control until around 12 a.m. Sunday.

G4S staff alerted the Polk County Sheriff's Office and a massive law enforcement response descended on the facility to set a perimeter as the juveniles took over the facility that was housing 138 juveniles.

G4S only has 19 people working at the youth academy, and none of them is armed.

The facility's staff was evacuated from the compound because they are not in place to contain a riot situation.  "G4S employees are not allowed to have any specialty equipment," said Sheriff's spokewoman Carrie Eleazer "to include pepper spray, which would have allowed them to deal with the fight before it escalated into a riot."

Some 150 law enforcement officers from PCSO, the Department of Corrections, Florida Fish and Wildlife, Florida Highway Patrol and the Highlands County Sheriff's Office began extracting juveniles one-by-one and putting them in "flex" handcuffs. Highlands County Fire-EMS and Polk County Fire also responded for firefighting and medical assistance.

The juveniles gained access to an office building holding their records and set it on fire.  A dumpster was also set on fire. At least 18 of 20 building at the compound were heavily damaged, sustaining "hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of damage," according to Eleazor. A staff radio and all staff golf carts were taken over by the juveniles.

No juveniles escaped the facility, but seven were injured during the riot, including one with a broken leg.

They were transported to Florida Hospital in Sebring with various injuries. According to the DJJ, three juveniles remained hospitalized Sunday.

No staff or law enforcement officers were injured.

Parent Jill Elkington was at the facility Sunday, but was not allowed to see her son, who has been housed at the youth academy.  

"I sobbed," Elkington said.  "I really, actually physically fell down and sobbed.  I thought, is my kid all right?  Is he alive?  Is he dead?  And they minimize everything," she said.

"There's no damage, so why can't I see my kid? What does he look like? Are they waiting a week for the bruises to go away?" Elkington asked.  Elkington said she had filed complaints about the facility in past over the treatment of kids inside.

"Outside investigators should swarm this place," Elkington said.

Sheriff Judd said he had little sympathy for those criticisms.

"The parent that had that complaint should have raised her child right so he wouldn't have committed crime and been there

in the first place," said Judd.

The sheriff's office, meanwhile, is conducting an investigation that could result in multiple felony charges for those involved in the riot.

After the riot was brought under control, 64 juveniles were transported to the PCSO South County Jail in nearby Frostproof and have been placed in state custody, under the supervision of G4S, according to Eleazor. "They are separated by sight and sound from adult inmates." The other juveniles remain at the juvenile facility.

Eleazor said there is no video footage of the riot because the facility has no security cameras and is in an area of the Avon Park Air Force Range.

The facility is a "moderate risk" residential program that houses up to 200 males, from ages 16 to 18, for an average of 270 days.

According to the company's website, GS4 Youth Services "has a proven record of accomplishment in helping government agencies take care of at-risk and offending juveniles." The company referred comment on the incident to the DJJ.

"Once law enforcement officials have completed their investigation, DJJ will conduct a thorough internal review to enhance safeguards that provide for the safety of youth and staff in Florida's juvenile justice facilities," DJJ spokeswoman Meghan Speakes Collins said in a statement obtained by the Associated Press.

She said this was the first incident of this magnitude at the facility. "No arrests have been at the time, but that may change as the law enforcement investigation goes on."

The facility has three shifts, with the night shift having the lowest staff-to-juvenile ratio. DJJ officials said 21 employees were at the facility when the riot started.

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In an earlier update to this story, the brand of noodles was identified by law enforcement as Cup O' Noodles. All research attempts to identify such a brand were unsuccessful. The article now reflects the brand as Nissin's Cup Noodles.

 

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