Juvenile Services changes protocol for corrections facilities
CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Facing a report claiming West Virginia is harsh and abusive toward troubled youth, the Division of Juvenile Services agreed Monday to make numerous changes to its operations.
The 11-page settlement order filed in Kanawha Circuit Court is a wide-ranging response to a sharply worded expert's report on the Industrial Home for Youth in Salem, the state's maximum-security corrections facility for juveniles.
Juvenile Services Deputy Director Denny Dodson said the settlement was a "significant positive step for the whole juvenile justice system."
But the expert report that preceded the settlement describes conditions in Salem as "overly brutal," "stark," and "harsh and abusive." It says operations at Salem are nonsensical and only make matters worse for troubled youth.
The report said inmates were sleeping without pillows on thin pads over metal slabs, girls couldn't have hair that touched their necks and no one was allowed to speak during meals.
Expert witness Paul DeMuro interviewed 21 residents at Salem and six more at the adjacent Harriet Jones Treatment Center. He visited the facilities, collectively known as Salem, in August.
Salem - which houses about 122 youths - "fails to comply with widely accepted juvenile justice institutional practices and standards," DeMuro found.
DeMuro is a former corrections and child welfare official who has done work in six states.
Lawyers with Mountain State Justice brought DeMuro in to look at Salem. The legal aid firm represents two Salem inmates identified only as "D.L." and "K.P."
Their lawsuit alleges, among other things, that Salem residents are illegally locked in solitary confinement, strip-searched and denied access to educational material.
DeMuro's report confirmed such conditions and revealed a number of other harsh practices.
In particular, Salem's staff members "rely excessively and unnecessarily on the use of locked isolation."
"The use of isolation, particularly for youth, is harmful and counterproductive," DeMuro said. "Isolated youth often feel depressed and desperate. Locking a youth in his or her room or in an isolation room does not reduce a youth's acting out, in fact, its use only makes matters worse."
Some inmates are locked in their normal cells for much of the day; others are taken to "Unit 208," a special isolation unit.
DeMuro's findings jibe with standing concerns about Salem. Earlier this year, the state Supreme Court hired an official to monitor the state's juvenile justice system. The monitor is concerned the juvenile centers are too much like prisons.
In Unit 208, DeMuro found a unit "as secure as any discipline or isolation unit I have seen in adult prisons or jails."
He found limited space and no natural light.
Part of the report focuses on youth isolated because they are on suicide watch. DeMuro said they can be locked in their own rooms or sent to 208.
"They are forced to wear a Velcro wrap, eat cold 'finger food' and are locked in isolation cells for most of each day," DeMuro said.
For residents on suicide watch, there is little human contact and no counseling services.
"There is no life-affirming activity," DeMuro said.
"This practice makes no sense," he said. "Such cruel conditions serve only to increase a youth's depression and anxiety. And youth are much more likely to commit suicide when they are locked into an isolation cell."
In a partial settlement of Mountain State Justice's case, the state Division of Juvenile Services agreed to change how it treats suicidal youths.
The state agreed such youths should not be isolated as much, should be quickly assessed by a counselor and should be offered a regular diet.
"The whole suicide policy is going to be looked at, studied," Dodson said.
Mercer County Circuit Court Judge Omar Aboulhosn approved the order Monday.
The lawsuit was originally filed in the state Supreme Court. But justices moved the case to Kanawha Circuit Court with orders that evidence be gathered about the many allegations. The court appointed Aboulhosn to take the case as a special assignment.
Hearings scheduled this week were canceled because of the partial settlement. Additional hearings are still scheduled for November.
Some inmates sent to Unit 208 for causing problems can spend months there, DeMuro found. One youth has been locked up on "Administrative Segregation" since Jan. 30, according to the report.
"In general, they have no program and do not know what they can do to get out . . ." DeMuro said. "This is a harsh and overly brutal practice."
In the order, the Division of Juvenile Services agreed to use the segregation "very sparingly" in the future and to get approval from senior department officials if an inmate is going to be isolated for more than 10 days.
In April, Juvenile Services Director Dale Humphreys said he had ordered an end to the long-standing practice of placing juveniles in solitary confinement. DeMuro's visit came in August.
Dodson said the April announcement "began the process of ending" solitary confinement and that "isolation for isolation's sake is no longer practiced for us."
State officials describe Salem as home to some of the most hardened of the state's juvenile offenders, including murderers, drug dealers, repeat offenders and adults who remain there for youthful offenses.
DeMuro challenged this characterization.
"Contrary to popular belief, many of the youth at the facility have not been adjudicated for violent crimes," he said.
DeMuro found a variety of questionable or abusive practices. Among them:
"In a sense, the Industrial Home is an example of a one-sided Skinner's box with basically the overuse of isolation," DeMuro said, referring to B.F. Skinner, the psychologist who devised experiments to train caged animals based on punishments and rewards.
"Youth are placed in Unit 208 and locked into a cell, sometimes for days before their due process hearing occurs," he said. "In essence often youth are punished before any hearing is held."
The state agreed to overhaul its due process system and its grievance system.
The order does not appear to address this concern.