LARGO — When officials at the Pinellas County Juvenile Detention Center heard rumors that a detention officer was trading food and drink with underage inmates in exchange for sexual favors, they started investigating.
They searched a teen's cell and found a handwritten phone number. When they called it, Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said it was answered by juvenile detention officer Joshua Harrison.
The 27-year-old Harrison was arrested Tuesday on two counts of sexual battery, one count of simple battery and one count of introduction of contraband in a juvenile detention facility.
The state agency that runs the Pinellas facility fired him Feb. 4 during the sheriff's investigation. Department of Juvenile Justice Secretary Simone Marstiller said Wednesday in a statement that she would direct her staff to "explore screening tools to help us reduce the likelihood of anything like this happening again" and would offer therapy services to children involved in the investigation.
"The Department of Juvenile Justice does not tolerate victimization of children in the agency's care, and we expect this individual will be zealously prosecuted for his reprehensible actions," Marstiller said, according to the statement.
Gualtieri said Harrison was "grooming" his victims and sexually assaulted three 17-year-old boys in January. Five other juveniles have reported that Harrison approached them as well.
He tried to bribe them with food and drink for sexual favors and to expose themselves, the Sheriff's Office said, while providing them with Xanax and letting them view pornography on his phone.
However, Harrison does not face charges in those allegations. The investigation is continuing, and investigators fear there are still more victims out there.
"There are so many kids that cycle in and out of the juvenile detention center," Gualtieri said at a news conference held after the arrest. "Experience tells me these aren't the only kids, unfortunately."
Harrison was hired by the state juvenile agency on May 1, 2018. He was assigned to the midnight shift to monitor inmate housing.
Gualtieri explained that meant he should have "little to no contact" with inmates because they're locked in their cells from 10:30 p.m. to 7 a.m.
But the sheriff said surveillance video showed Harrison bringing underage inmates contraband, sneaking in and out of cells, passing notes and befriending them.
"There is no reason why Harrison would be in the housing area or the cell area by himself with the inmates," Gualtieri said. "He should never be in the inmates cell at any time during his shift."
Investigators said they found three juveniles assaulted by Harrison:
• One victim told deputies Harrison promised to help support him and his mother because he knew they were financially struggling. He also said Harrison brought him sandwiches and drinks.
At one point, another detention officer saw Harrison give the boy a hot chocolate. She told him it was wrong, the sheriff said, but never reported the incident.
Then on Jan. 28, investigators said Harrison entered the boy's cell and sexually assaulted him. He then offered the boy $400 to stay silent, the sheriff said.
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• Another victim said Harrison played a game where he would have to expose himself if he lost, but if he won, the officer would give him food. He sexually assaulted the victim in his cell twice on Jan. 21, according to the Sheriff's Office.
Another detention officer saw Harrison throw a sandwich into the cell, but said nothing. When
• A third victim said Harrison entered his cell on Jan. 20 and inappropriately touched him. The boy said he tried to punch Harrison, who then left. Surveillance video backs up the boy's account, according to the Sheriff's Office.
Harrison was booked into the Pinellas County jail, which is near the juvenile facility, and is being held in lieu of $305,500 bail.
Contact McKenna Oxenden at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @mack_oxenden.