CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Severe understaffing at a juvenile detention center in Harrison County is causing safety concerns that need to be addressed immediately, according to a legal motion filed Friday.
The new allegations stem from a lengthy court case that led to the closure of the Industrial Home for Youth in Salem, an investigation of similar centers in the state and the firing of the former head of the Division of Juvenile Services.
Joe Thornton, secretary for the state Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety, said there are staffing issues and the state is investigating.
He pledged to borrow staff from the now-adult corrections facility at Salem to fully staff the Harriet B. Jones Treatment Center, which is located on the same grounds.
A hearing is scheduled for this morning so that Mercer Circuit Judge Omar Aboulhosn, the judge assigned to the case, can learn more about the concerns.
Mountain State Justice, a Charleston-based public interest law firm, filed an emergency motion last week to address "serious safety concerns" at the Jones Center, which houses sexual offenders and inmates with significant psychiatric issues.
"At the point I visited the facility, I was told by numerous residents that they were in danger. They were scared," said Lydia Milnes, one of two Mountain State Justice attorneys involved in the case.
"There's actually been incidents that have taken place since that time that justify that fear, unfortunately."
Mountain State Justice filed an initial lawsuit on behalf of two juveniles at the Industrial Home, then the only maximum-security juvenile corrections facility in the state.
Allegations, later affirmed by a juvenile justice expert, said conditions there were "totally inappropriate" for youth offenders: the state allegedly focused too much on punishment and not enough on rehabilitation.
Mountain State Justice has access to every juvenile facility in the state, following an order from Aboulhosn. That order allowed them to interview Jones Center inmates.
Right now, there are 21 sexual offenders and about four offenders with behavioral issues there, Thornton said in an interview Tuesday at the state Capitol. It can house up to 38 offenders.
Six youth offenders were interviewed in June, Milnes said.
At times there is only one staff member on duty in each unit, an inadequate number for any unit, Milnes said. To make up for fewer staff members, the motion alleges residents are being kept in their cells for too long.
The lack of staffing has led to violent incidents "of both a physical and sexual nature" between residents, according to the motion. The staff is also accused of inappropriate conduct.
A female officer is accused of watching offenders shower at the all-male facility. A male officer is accused of making at least three different offenders uncomfortable by telling certain offenders he loves them, offering hugs and other actions.
"Counsel has learned from various sources that a former officer of the facility engaged in abuse of residents, including forcing residents to drink toilet water and eat pubic hair," states a footnote in the motion.