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W.Va. judge: Fix Salem youth prison -- or close it

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A judge issued a tentative order Friday that could result in the closure of West Virginia's only high-security youth prison and pave the way for sweeping changes in the state's juvenile justice system.After finding that the West Virginia Industrial Home for Youth in Salem is in violation of state code by its treatment of juvenile offenders, Judge Omar J. Aboulhosn issued an order that calls on state lawmakers to either make drastic changes to the facility or abandon it and relocate its population.Friday's order is in response to a lawsuit filed by public-interest law firm Mountain State Justice, which claimed that the Salem facility's staffers illegally strip-searched and confined inmates and instituted other practices that directly contradict portions of state code that define juvenile rights.Lawmakers will have until the end of the upcoming legislative session to find a way to remedy deficiencies in the facility. If they fail to do so, the judge will mandate the changes himself, which might include a direct order to close Salem, Aboulhosn said in the order.One of the main problems of the Salem facility is that it's built like an adult prison, with steel doors, cement floors, fixed furniture and individual segregation cells, according to Paul DeMuro, a consultant with Mountain State Justice who was hired to study the facility.DeMuro said the architecture creates a "culture of control" that does not lend to rehabilitation, the stated goal of juvenile centers in West Virginia."People react in a way their environs support," DeMuro testified during a hearing last month. "You go to church, you pray. You go to the courts, you play tennis." State Division of Juvenile Services officials were out of the office Friday and could not be reached for comment.The division generally has been willing to correct problems with the facility and its occupants.Last spring, for instance, Juvenile Services Director Dale Humphreys ordered an end to solitary confinement. In September, the division agreed to change policies that called for staffers to place suicidal youths on lockdown with no human contact or counseling.
Cindy Largent-Hill, a court monitor whom the parties agreed should oversee those preliminary changes, reported earlier this month that the center's superintendent, David W. Jones, has implemented more changes that indicate more of a focus on "rehabilitative needs, programs and treatment for all residents."For one, Jones has allowed the inmates to have personal items in their rooms and has ordered new mattresses for the cells and new polo-shirt uniforms for the inmates and staff. Additionally, counselors now have more individual sessions with the residents and other training sessions that focus on creating a therapeutic environment.Jones said during one staff meeting that the facility "is no longer a maximum-security center for juveniles," and that "this will be a treatment center with security, not a security facility with treatment."DeMuro said last month that, even though the preliminary changes to Salem are laudable, the main problem is still that the facility has the look and feel of an adult prison. Adult prisons, he said, are punitive in nature, and not rehabilitative.Salem's "training school" model also is considered counterproductive because juveniles as young as 10 are sometimes in contact with dangerous criminals as old as 21. DeMuro recommended that the state should relocate residents younger than 15 and that all girls should be placed in gender-specific programs.
DeMuro, in his audit of the facility, suggested that the state move toward community corrections programs or foster-care programs geared toward children with behavioral disorders.DeMuro said his findings are based on a study released last year by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which said juvenile facilities have 72 percent recidivism rates and waste billions of taxpayer dollars every year.The study highlights six alternatives to the traditional system, including systems that focus heavily on individual therapy and replacing large juvenile prisons with smaller regional prisons for violent offenders.Aboulhosn ordered the Division of Juvenile Services to provide an individual assessment on the children that remain in the facility and determine whether any of them should be transferred to another program.He set another hearing to discuss Friday's order for Jan. 11 in Kanawha County Circuit Court. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, House Speaker Rick Thompson, D-Wayne, and Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, were forwarded copies of the order. Aboulhosn said he would issue a final order after the parties resolve all of the outstanding issues in the lawsuit.Reach Zac Taylor at or 304-348-5189.
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