Although 14-year-old homicide suspect Rahmir I. Hopkins has been charged as an adult, he occupies a Lancaster County Prison cell in a juvenile-only unit set up to protect youthful defendants from sexual assault and other harm by adult inmates.

Hopkins is not alone. Last week he joined Friday Elon Butcher, 16, and Philip John Dickinson III, 17, who are awaiting trial on aggravated assault and robbery charges from an August 2018 holdup in which a 28-year-old man was shot and wounded.

The special 14-cell unit for male offenders under age 18 was created about three years ago at the 800-inmate prison in response to federal regulations, Warden Cheryl Steberger said.

The boys have school inside the jail, receiving regular instruction from a School District of Lancaster teacher while they await their court dates.

Hopkins, who is accused of fatally shooting a man Oct. 9 on South Lime Street in Lancaster, is scheduled for a preliminary hearing Friday.

No girls

The 14-cell unit for young male inmates can house up to 23 boys, Steberger said. To date, the most the unit has held at any one time was six boys.

But the prison has no cells available for girls under the age of 18. Steberger said Lancaster County girls charged with serious crimes are held at jails in neighboring Berks, Chester or York counties.

The Lancaster County Youth Intervention Center houses both boys and girls whose cases are handled in the juvenile court system.

In the past, Lancaster County Prison housed boys charged as adults in single cells in its restricted housing facility. The jail opened the 14-cell unit for boys to comply with the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act.

The law addressed what the Washington-based Campaign for Youth Justice calls the inherent dangers of placing youths in adult facilities. Those risks, the organization says, include sexual assault and suicide.

Steberger said the segregated housing unit for youths complies with the law’s standard of “sight and sound separation” from adult inmates when they shower and sleep.

An audit in June by a federally certified inspector found the jail in compliance with the guidelines. The audit report is posted online.

Steberger said separation begins in the commitment area when a youth first arrives at the jail. During the commitment process, a youth is held separately from arriving adults.

Segregation from the general population is then maintained in the 14-cell housing unit.

Prison life

Inside their own unit, boys are allowed out of the cell and onto the unit’s block as long as they aren’t on cell restriction for an infraction, Steberger said.

The boys have all meals in the unit, and they attend school in a dedicated classroom during the same days that Lancaster’s public schools are in session.

The boys cannot be taken to the restricted housing unit for discipline or to the medical housing unit for health problems. Those issues are addressed in the youth unit.

The youths can attend church service or exercise in the gym with adult inmates but only when accompanied by staff, Steberger said.

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