Expert advises closure of Salem youth facility
CHARLESTON, W.Va. - West Virginia should immediately begin to close its maximum-security facility for troubled youths, an expert witness in a closely watched lawsuit said Tuesday.
The witness, juvenile corrections expert Peter DeMuro, said the Industrial Home for Youth in Salem is "totally inappropriate" for children and young adults. Salem currently houses about 74 juveniles up to the age of 21.
DeMuro found the facility is so prison-like that the younger inmates should be removed within a matter of months. Once they are gone, the campus' then-empty main building should be given to the adult prison system.
There was a sign DeMuro's recommendations could become reality. DeMuro's report and testimony Tuesday in Kanawha Circuit Court went mostly unchallenged by a lawyer for the state Division of Juvenile Services, which runs Salem.
The division agreed in mid-September to make numerous changes after DeMuro found operations at Salem are nonsensical and only make matters worse for troubled youth.
Charleston legal aide firm Mountain State Justice brought the lawsuit on behalf of two Salem inmates.
But DeMuro said Tuesday those earlier changes did not go far enough. DeMuro's ultimate goal is to get children out of large institutions like Salem. There, troubled youths tend to pick up bad habits, he said.
"You create the culture you're trying to unwind," DeMuro said.
Mercer County Circuit Court Judge Omar Aboulhosn, who has been assigned to hear the case in Kanawha County, wants to issue an order by the end of the year. The order could very well result in the depopulation or full closure of Salem. There is another facility on the Salem campus for juvenile sex offenders, but its future was not addressed Tuesday.
DeMuro proposed an orderly but rapid closure of Salem's main campus.
First, younger, nonviolent boys would be removed from Salem and transferred to other, smaller facilities. Girls also would be moved out of Salem, although there are only about a dozen girls at Salem now.
Then, older boys would be evaluated and transferred to another, smaller facility. The state would need to find ways to care for the most violent offenders, but even they should not be kept at Salem for more than a year, DeMuro said.
DeMuro said Salem's main building, Building A, should be given to the state's adult prison system. The prison system is overcrowded, something lawmakers have done little to address, although an outside group is conducting a major study of the prison system that is due in coming weeks.
In an interview after the hearing, Juvenile Services Deputy Director Denny Dodson said the population at Salem has been dropping. Six years ago, there were about 180 juveniles there. Now, there are only 74.
Dodson said Building A was designed and built by the Regional Jail Authority, which runs the state's adult jails. He called it a negative environment for juveniles.
"They just didn't get the right advice on how to build (Salem)," Dodson said.
Still, Dodson encouraged observers to "overlook the building" and look at the kinds of care troubled youths are receiving there.
DeMuro said the institution itself was too prison-like to keep using.
"I don't think it's just a matter of getting the right shrink in the room," he said.
DeMuro complimented Salem's staff but did not shy away from questioning their efforts.
"It's not the people that are evil," he said.
"The approach needs to be rethought."
Instead, he says juveniles should be given counseling in their communities rather than being sent away and locked up. DeMuro thinks the most serious offenders should be kept in smaller institutions closer to their homes.
Dodson said the state is already doing some of this. While he did not dispute DeMuro's assessment, he wondered about the pace.
"It's easy to say it," Dodson said, "but it's not easy to do it."
DeMuro also worried about political obstacles to closing a state-run facility that provides 200 jobs in North Central West Virginia. He said the state should do everything it can to make sure Salem's staff have jobs if the facility is closed.
DeMuro also found the state Department of Health and Human Resources is spending $25 million to $30 million a year to send 338 kids to private treatment centers in other states. (For comparison, the Division of Juvenile Services' entire budget is about $42 million.)
Some lawmakers and child advocates have long argued DHHR would spend less and do a better job for children if these few hundred kids were not shipped to facilities in other states.