2nd W.Va. youth detention center ordered closed
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Amid widespread safety problems and allegations of sexual assaults committed by inmates and a senior official, Circuit Judge Omar Aboulhosn ordered a juvenile treatment center in Harrison County shut down by Sept. 30.
"The safety of the staff and safety of these residents needs to be taken care of," Aboulhosn said Wednesday in ordering that the inmates at the Harriet B. Jones Treatment Center be moved. "Whether it's a new facility or an existing facility, it just can't stay where it's at."
It is the second juvenile center that the state has shut down this year.
The state closed the Industrial Home for Youth, formerly the state's only maximum-security juvenile center, on July 1. That was the result of a lawsuit filed last year by Mountain State Justice, a public-interest law firm based in Charleston, citing widespread problems at the facility.
Mountain State Justice filed an emergency motion Friday in Kanawha Circuit Court to look into problems at Harriet B. Jones, which is on the same site in Salem as the Industrial Home.
Some of the inmates at the Industrial Home were moved to Harriet B. Jones in April, creating new problems.
There are four populations at Harriet B. Jones: juvenile sex offenders, juvenile wellness patients, adult sex offenders and adult wellness patients. All the adults were originally sentenced as juveniles. Wellness patients are those with mental health issues who need special protection or supervision.
Harriet B. Jones has only two floors, so rather than housing the four populations in four separate units, they've been mixed together.
"To find out today that we have a 15-year-old wellness individual in the same unit as a 20-year-old juvenile sex offender is beyond the pale," Aboulhosn said, "I'm stunned.
"It's a bad idea, it's a terrible idea. It is horrific to think that that's going on."
Three witnesses testified Wednesday about chronic understaffing, safety issues and juvenile inmates being denied their court-ordered rights.
Troy Allen Stephenson, a correctional officer at Harriet B. Jones, said there have been problems since the Industrial Home was officially closed last week.
Stephenson said a 15-year-old inmate alleged a sexual assault by an older inmate on Saturday. However, Marty Wright, a deputy attorney general representing the state, said that allegation had since been recanted.
Stephenson also testified that he saw the director of security, Sgt. Traci Leonard, sexually assault a 19-year-old corrections officer. Stephenson said he had been retaliated against for reporting the alleged incident and feared further retaliation for his testimony Wednesday.
When asked about the allegation by phone, Leonard stepped away to bring his supervisor on the phone. The supervisor, who refused to identify himself, said, "We can't respond to that; it's in our policy."
Joseph Thornton, secretary of the Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety, said the department is investigating the allegation. If the investigation rises to a criminal level, it will be transferred to the West Virginia State Police, he said.
The investigation was initiated by acting director of juvenile services Stephanie Bond, Thornton said.
Stephenson and Taya Louise Trent, a former officer at Harriet B. Jones, testified that inmates are regularly denied rights that were instituted by a November court order. Juvenile inmates were forbidden from speaking during meals, strip-searched, denied weekly phone calls and locked in their cells in the middle of the day, Stephenson and Trent testified.
The two said those practices had begun to diminish since April. Strip-searches no longer are conducted at the Jones Center and silence is no longer required at meals, they said.
Stephenson and Trent testified that the director of Harriet B. Jones, Todd Hayes, had said he was not going to make the changes mandated by the November court order until he had to.
"Director Hayes had told us we were not going to follow that order because it didn't pertain to us and we weren't going to change anything until somebody came and made us," Trent said.
Hayes was not at Wednesday's hearing, but Bond and Wright objected to the assertion that Hayes ordered people to disregard the court order.
Trent said the system for inmates to file grievances at Harriet B. Jones was inadequate. Rather than an anonymous grievance box, as was mandated, Trent said inmates had to request a grievance form from a staff member and then had to personally turn the form back in to a staff member.
Trent said grievances were then handled by an untrained secretary who was frustrated because she "didn't know what she was doing."
Trent testified that she was fired from Harriet B. Jones in May, after she filed a list of violations relating to the November court order and was denied whistleblower status.
When she was fired, she said, she was questioned about filing false time records.
She said she is filing a wrongful-termination lawsuit against the state.
Wright said the Jones Center was doing its best to comply with the November court order, but acknowledged that it was understaffed, there were significant problems and solutions would take time.
During the testimony of a juvenile witness who is an inmate at Harriet B. Jones, there was some confusion as to whether he had pleaded guilty to a minor rules violation while he was confined.
Wright produced documentation stating that he had pleaded guilty, but the juvenile testified that he had not.
Upon examination of the guilty plea, Aboulhosn found that the juvenile had never signed it and there was no documentation that he had accepted the plea.
Wright said there might have been confusion among documents and produced another guilty plea from the same day. That plea also was unsigned.
"This has got to be the worst document that the court has ever seen for taking a guilty plea from an individual. I see nothing on here signed by the individual that he has pled guilty, nothing at all," Aboulhosn said. "How in the world do I have any faith that they're having fair due-process proceedings?"
The juvenile also said he feared retaliation from correctional officers because of his testimony Wednesday.
Aboulhosn set a goal of closing Harriet B. Jones by Sept. 30, but said he would schedule another hearing for early August and would consider pushing the deadline if progress was being made.
In a written message, Amy Shuler Goodwin, a spokeswoman for Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, said the administration is addressing a number of challenges relating to juvenile services.
"While hurdles still exist, we will diligently work to meet the deadline set by the court," Goodwin wrote.
The Division of Juvenile Services has been searching for a new facility since Tomblin announced in March that the Industrial Home would be closed and the facility would become an adult prison.
The administration is looking for a suitable building in the area, so that the current staff members can keep their jobs.
Thornton said the inmates at Harriet B. Jones have special needs, further complicating the move.
"You have juveniles that aren't your standard detention juveniles, these are kids under intensive treatment and rehabilitation opportunities, so we need to assure that we're the least disruptive as we can be in that process," Thornton said. "We're certainly going to do our very best to meet that deadline."
Aboulhosn praised Bond for her direction of the Kenneth Honey Rubenstein Juvenile Center in Tucker County, which he described as the best in the state.
The Rubenstein Center has about 40 open beds, but houses juveniles who are incarcerated for lesser offenses.
Aboulhosn described those open beds as a possible "release valve" for the Jones Center's 28 inmates.
Mountain State Justice also asked that Aboulhosn mandate staffing changes at Harriet B. Jones, requesting that Hayes and Leonard be replaced. The judge declined.
"I have serious concerns about the leadership there, but I'm not going to get down in making personnel decisions," Aboulhosn said, right after pointing at Bond and saying, "The buck stops there."
Reach David Gutman at email@example.com or 304-348-5119.