Judge orders closure of youth corrections facility
CHARLESTON, W.Va. - A judge has told the state it must close and move a youth correctional facility after hearing allegations of ongoing safety concerns.
It's the latest order in an ongoing investigation of the juvenile justice system in West Virginia that's already led to the closure of the Industrial Home for Youth in Salem, a system-wide review and more.
Mercer Circuit Judge Omar Aboulhosn said the Harriet B. Jones Treatment Center in Harrison County must be closed or moved by Sept. 30.
That decision came after a lengthy hearing Wednesday morning in Charleston that covered allegations of sexual abuse, commingling of adult and youth offenders and other wrongdoings.
"If I don't order something to be done, I fear we'll be here next year and it still won't be done," Aboulhosn said.
"The bottom line is we've got to get the kids out of there," he said later in the hearing.
Attorneys for Mountain State Justice, the Charleston-based public interest law firm pushing for changes in the juvenile justice system, pointed to serious staffing issues as a large part of the problems. They were pleased with Aboulhosn's order.
"Ultimately, I think that he is taking the situation very seriously, and we agree that ... Harriet B Jones does need to be relocated, and the sooner the better," said Mountain State Justice attorney Lydia Milnes.
Joe Thornton, cabinet secretary for the state Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety, told the Daily Mail there are staffing issues at the Jones center. The state is working on bringing in more staff, and it is genuinely committed to finding a permanent solution, he said.
Martin Wright, an attorney with the Office of the Attorney General representing the state, told Aboulhosn the same during the hearing. However, he said meeting the Sept. 30 deadline could be very challenging.
A spokeswoman for Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin echoed the sentiment in a prepared statement issued late Wednesday.
"There are a number of challenges we continue to address in our comprehensive restructuring of juvenile services," said Tomblin spokeswoman Amy Shuler Goodwin.
"While hurdles still exist, we will diligently work to meet the deadline set by the court while remaining focused on providing the best treatment programs and facilities for our youth."
Problems at the Jones center
The Jones center is the only facility in the state for juvenile sexual offenders. It also houses juveniles who have psychiatric issues, known as "wellness" offenders, Thornton said.
There were 20 sexual offenders and seven wellness offenders Wednesday at the facility, Thornton said. The wellness offenders moved to the Jones center when the Industrial home closed, he said.
Issues at both the Industrial home and the Jones center came to light after offenders at the Industrial home filed lawsuits through Mountain State Justice. In legal actions that followed, Aboulhosn determined there was too much of a focus on punishment instead of rehabilitation at the Industrial home.
The state eventually announced it would close the home and make it Salem Correctional Center, an adult prison. It said it would also try to find a new home for the offenders at the Jones center, located on the same property.
During the investigation of all juvenile justice facilities, Aboulhosn issued an order about what conduct all such facilities should follow. Mountain State Justice said those orders were not being followed at the Jones center, and entered an emergency motion for changes with the court last week.
In Wednesday's hearing, attorneys Lydia Milnes and Dan Hedges of Mountain State Justice presented testimony that alleged center administrators deliberately ignored the court order and did nothing to address safety concerns.
Former Jones Center guard Taya Trent, current guard Troy Stephenson and an offender at the facility all testified there are serious safety issues at the facility.
For months, there was not enough staff to protect offenders or employees, they said. They also said until late April or May, offenders were at times locked in their cells for long periods during the day, were not allowed to talk with one another and were denied phone calls.
If a guard has to leave a unit, Stephenson said many times the only option is to lock everyone in their cells. He admitted to Wright they are not in their cells all day, but they can be locked up for several short periods throughout the day.
Both Trent and Stephenson testified Jones center Director Todd Hayes knew of the issues and the court order and decided to do nothing.
"It was common knowledge that we wasn't going to comply with (the order) until we was forced to," Hayes said.
The officers also said there was an issue with the Jones' center director of security. Stephenson identified him as "Sgt. Traci Leonard." Stephenson didn't spell the name; Milnes confirmed the spelling of his last name, but did not know his first.
Stephenson said he saw Leonard sexually assault another employee. He reported the abuse, and said there is an ongoing investigation into the matter at the center.
Trent and Stephenson said they were testifying under a subpoena. Both, along with the juvenile offender, said they were worried about retribution they could receive for testifying.
In addition to this testimony, Milnes said their investigation has revealed serious leadership issues at the center. She asked Aboulhosn to make a decision concerning those positions, but he declined. He did point at Bond and say, "the buck stops there."
"We're just hopeful that (Aboulhosn's) strong language during the proceeding is sufficient to make sure the vision addresses the immediate safety concerns," Milnes said in a phone interview.
In the hearing, Bond said Hayes is in the process of transferring to the Department of Corrections. Thornton said the department typically does not comment on personnel issues.
"All I can tell you right now is Todd Hayes is currently the director of that facility," Thornton said. Judge's decision
Following about three hours of testimony and questioning from attorneys, Aboulhosn agreed with Mountain State Justice that there was sufficient evidence of serious problems at the facility. In particular, he expressed concern about an alleged abuse of 15-year-old offender by a 20-year-old offender.
While Wright said the accusation was later recanted, Aboulhosn said he was shocked to learn the facility kept adult and youth sex offenders in the same units.
"I'd be shocked if you could find someone to say that's a good idea," Aboulhosn said. "It's a bad idea. It's a terrible idea. It's horrific to think that that's going on."
That's part of the juvenile system across the state, Thornton said. An offender committed to a juvenile facility can be forced to stay there until he or she turns 21 according to state law, he said. There aren't many offenders at the Jones center who are older than 18, he said.
All parties agreed they want to continue to work to improve conditions at the Jones center and other juvenile facilities. Meeting the Sept. 30 mandated move or closure could be challenging: Both Thornton and Bond have said they've had trouble finding a suitable new location for the facility.
"Deadlines are tough, we all have to deal with them in life," Thornton said. "We want to make sure we don't make decisions in haste."
Bond told Aboulhosn her division is committed to making changes at the facility. They have already asked for the Department of Corrections to send staff members from the now-adult Salem facility to cover at the Jones center until they can come up with a permanent solution, Bond said at the hearing.
Although Aboulhosn scolded Bond for not knowing who is in charge of scheduling those employees, he said she has done a great job with the division in the past.
Aboulhosn said he would issue the official order about the Jones center by the end of the week. Everyone will come together again in early August to discuss progress with the Jones center and the new adult center at Salem.
The state expects the new Salem Correctional Center to open Aug. 1.
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