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Court study finds practices at youth prisons troubling

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- An investigating body headed by the Supreme Court released a report Monday evening that highlighted several "troublesome" practices at two youth prisons and advocated for systematic changes to the state's juvenile justice system.

The report, generated by a commission that the court organized in 2011 partly to investigate the hazy circumstances surrounding the death of Benjamin Hill found that workers at the poorly staffed West Virginia Industrial Home for Youth, in Salem, and the Kenneth "Honey" Rubenstein Center, in Davis, were hindering the rehabilitative process for the youths housed there.

Among the practices at the two facilities, the Supreme Court found:

  • Corrections officers covered some cell windows with black paper, prohibiting residents from seeing outside and restricting natural light.
  • Most psychiatric services were provided to the children through video conference.
  • Residents' cells were cold and were furnished with thin mattresses and blankets.
  • Residents were prohibited from talking during meal time and had very limited peer interaction.
  • The food quality in the prisons is poor and scarce. Many children complained of being "hungry all the time."
  • "The West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals is committed to a juvenile justice system which promotes effective interventions and enhances the likelihood of rehabilitation for those children involved in delinquent behavior," state Supreme Court Justice Margaret Workman, who headed the commission, said in a news release. "This report now gives the commission a framework to continue its mission to encourage systematic changes."

    Monday's report comes as juvenile services officials begin the task of reassessing and relocating the children currently housed at Salem. A judge ordered the permanent closure of the facility last week.

    In February 2009, Hill, 15, was found dead in his cell. Investigators the commission hired could not determine a cause of the boy's death, mostly because the body was cremated.

    "With the information available, a positive cause of death could neither be determined nor confirmed," according to the report. "It can be safely concluded that procedures were not followed. Regular and timely resident checks were not conducted as specified by policy.

    During the initial stages of the investigation, court compliance officer Tom Scott asked Salem officials for surveillance video of Hill's day room, or any other evidence they might have from his room. They did not have a copy of the video, Scott said in his report.

    State Police later provided Scott with a copy of surveillance footage from outside Hill's cell. The footage, Hill said, was of poor quality and the time stamp was incorrect by an hour and 20 minutes.

    Hill entered his room about 5:30 p.m. Feb. 23. Staff did not re-enter the room until two hours later.

    During that time, staffers walked by the room twice during one 10-minute period and glanced into the room quickly before walking away. Staff did not record any security checks during those two hours.

    At 8:30 p.m., the staff's last entry in the logbook is a "rec on unit," indicating that the inmates had been called for recreation time. Another resident can be seen at Hill's door, apparently attempting to get him to answer, Scott said in his report.

    The resident tells a staffer, who figures that Hill is "probably asleep" but still doesn't pass by and check on him, the report states.

    An hour later, a staffer enters the room and emergency procedures begin.

    As part of the commission's investigations into the Hill incident, the Supreme Court appointed monitors to periodically visit Salem and the Rubenstein Center and report back to the court with their own findings.

    Initially, the monitors scheduled site visits, but state Juvenile Services Director Dale Humphreys began taking steps that "hindered productive visits," Monday's report states.

    Humphreys reportedly sent West Virginia Industrial Home for Youth Superintendent Joe Merendino to the Rubenstein Center to follow one of the monitors around and "see what she was 'up to,'" according to the report.

    "The monitor was also told that this would continue to be the protocol established by superintendent Humphreys," the commission's report states.

    The monitor's visits to the facilities are now unannounced, the report states.

    Humphreys was fired last month. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and Department of Military Affairs officials did not give a reason for the decision.

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


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