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Salem juvenile facility might be shut down

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A judge might decide before the end of the year to order a phased shutdown of West Virginia's only high-security juvenile facility, based on findings that the center runs like an adult prison and fails to rehabilitate the children it houses.

In April, public-interest law firm Mountain State Justice filed a lawsuit against the West Virginia Industrial Home for Youth on allegations that staffers in the Salem facility illegally strip-searched and confined inmates, who range in age from 10 to 21 years.

The lawsuit originally was filed in the state Supreme Court. The justices moved the case to Kanawha County, where the state's Division of Juvenile Services is based.

Mountain State Justice lawyers said after a hearing Tuesday that they will ask sitting Judge Omar J. Aboulhosn to issue an order that calls for a gradual dismantling of the Salem facility and a move away from state maximum-security juvenile centers in general.

Paul DeMuro, an out-of-state juvenile-justice consultant that Mountain State Justice hired to study Salem, said the architecture of the facility -- poorly lit cellblocks with tiny windows, steel doors, tables bolted to cement floors, and individual segregation cells -- creates a "culture of control" that systematically fails to help the kids learn to function in society.

"People react in a way their environs support," DeMuro testified Tuesday. "You go to church, you pray; you go to the courts, you play tennis." 

DeMuro said it would be cost prohibitive for the state to modify the center to create an environment more conducive to rehabilitation, and recommended that the state assess the needs of each individual child and work to relocate them.

Juvenile services officials have been working with Mountain State Justice to reform certain practices at the facility. A week after the lawsuit was filed last spring, Juvenile Services Director Dale Humphreys ordered an end to solitary confinement - one of the main ills that DeMuro said the juvenile program practiced at Salem.

"The more you lock a kid down, the more he or she will react," he said Tuesday. "I'm not against sanctions, but isolation is counterproductive."

In September, the division also agreed to change policies that called for staffers to place suicidal youths on lockdown with no human contact or counseling. In the agreement, the division agreed that the offenders should not be isolated as often and should be quickly assessed by a counselor, according to reports from The Associated Press.

Division lawyer Steve Compton said the state has openly agreed with Mountain State Justice that Salem's policies need to change, and the lawsuit has been a joint effort by both parties to put that change into effect.

But there are still some unanswered questions, he said. For one, it's not clear whether the judge can order the facility to close.

"If it makes sense, and it's the right thing to do, we'll do it," he said. "I don't believe necessarily that the judge has the authority to do it. It doesn't mean we won't."

The fate of the juveniles and the staff currently at the center also appears in limbo.

The parties say the center's current work force most likely would not be laid off, although some might be relocated to other facilities around the state. The parties also suggested that the center itself could be used as temporary housing for adult prisoners.

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.

Reach Zac Taylor at zachary.taylor@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5189.


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