W.Va. still dealing with overcrowded juvenile jails

After last year’s closing of the Industrial Home for Youth in Salem, officials at the West Virginia Department of Juvenile Services are still scrambling to find permanent homes for youth offenders, the agency’s director told lawmakers last week.

A shuffling around has led to significant overcrowding in several of the state’s facilities, which has led to security risks for staff and residents alike.

Stephanie Bond, acting director of the Department of Juvenile Services, told legislators during an interim Finance Committee meeting last week about three incidents linked to overcrowding. After the Salem facility’s closure, mid- to maximum-security youth offenders were relocated to either the Donald R. Kuhn Center, in Boone County, or the J.M. “Chick” Buckbee Center, in Hampshire County.

Both of those facilities are double-bunking youth offenders, Bond said.

“When you get a lot of kids into one unit, well teenage boys, they tend to get into fights,” she said.

On Feb. 18, one resident at the Donald R. Kuhn Center got into a fight with another resident, resulting in a broken jaw. Bond told legislators last week that the facility is near-capacity and is double bunked.

Also in April, residents at the Lorrie Yeager Detention Center, which is at max capacity, created a “near riot” situation, resulting in more than $40,000 in damages.

Earlier this month, Bond said, at least five residents at the Gene Spadaro Juvenile Center, in Fayette County, attempted an escape. The residents waited until the midnight staff took over and then attempted to spray a correctional officer with cleaning solution, Bond said. The young offenders also were armed with water bottles, she said. Department of Juvenile Services officials are investigating the incident to determine how residents got access to the cleaning solution.

Elaine Harris, of the AFL-CIO’s Communications Workers of America, said the correctional officers and non-uniformed staff in her organization are concerned about the safety risks posed by overcrowding in the facilities.

“Our team has been doing their level best to manage this,” Harris said, “but right now, we are at a crisis situation.”

Bond said there are solutions to the overcrowding problems, like taking advantage of programs in the state Department of Health and Human Resources that best suit low-level offenders such as runaways or truancy cases.

Lawrence Messina, communications director for the state Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety, said Bond has met with dozens of county judges about the matter. She wanted to make sure the judges understood the best way to provide services to juveniles.

She said she wants to make better use of the Kenneth Honey Rubenstein Juvenile Center, in Tucker County, which has several available beds and programs to help offenders get their lives back on track.

“We want to get the juveniles into the least-restrictive setting that provides the best chance in helping them get back on the right path,” Messina said.

Bond said she is committed to making sure residents, particularly those with behavioral issues, are getting housed and treated at the right facilities.

The Industrial Home for Youth was shut down after a 2012 lawsuit filed by Mountain State Justice against the Division of Juvenile Services. The lawsuit alleged that staffers illegally strip-searched and confined inmates and instituted other practices directly contradicting portions of state code that define juvenile rights. An expert the group hired to study Salem found that it was constructed like an adult prison and does not foster an attitude of rehabilitation. Division officials did not oppose the findings.

Reach Travis Crum at travis.crum@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5163.

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