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.