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Understaffing at W.Va. juvenile center alleged

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.

Other alleged problems include a lack of locked grievance boxes in each unit, and denying phone calls to family and attorneys.

Thornton said there could be truth to some of the allegations. He argues as a whole the corrections industry has "significant staffing challenges" that could lead to some of the issues outlined in the motion.

At any given time, Thornton said the center could be three or seven staff members short. That's only amplified by the forced closure of the Industrial Home, he said.

In March the state announced it would close the youth facility and reopen it as an adult facility July 1. The state also pledged to move the Jones Center inmates.

That's proving difficult. Officials had promised to look for a replacement close to the current location, but now they are having an issue finding anywhere that's suitable in the state.

"I can't just buy a hotel and stick them in it," Thornton said.

The Jones Center is the only location of its kind in the state. Any new facility needs to meet physical requirements - Thornton said the offenders would punch holes in drywall, for example -and needs to offer appropriate programming to help the offenders.

Jones Center employees know about the problems, and some have left over them. Industrial Home workers were offered the chance to transition to the adult facility, prompting more Jones Center employees to leave.

The state had plenty of time to prepare for the transition, Milnes said.

"That wasn't a secret that that was going to happen," Milnes said.  "I believe everyone was aware that was going to happen, and there were no steps taken to address that."

Overall, Thornton said the transition at the Industrial Home is going well. All of the offenders were sent to other facilities in June. Those requiring maximum to medium security were sent to the "Chick" Buckbee Juvenile Center in Hampshire County.

The adult Salem Correctional Center is set to open Aug. 1. It's expected to eventually house 350 to 400 inmates and employ about the same number as the Industrial Home, Thornton said.

Aboulhosn is expected to ask for an update on the Industrial Home at today's hearing, but Milnes said the focus would be on her emergency motion. She expects more details to emerge today.

The state, represented by the Office of the Attorney General, was still working Tuesday afternoon on its official response. The hearing is scheduled for 8:30 a.m. in the visiting judge's courtroom in the Kanawha County Judicial Annex.

Contact writer Dave Boucher at 304-348-4843 or david.boucher@dailymail.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/Dave_Boucher1.

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