JULIAN – Members of the Advisory Board of the Donald R. Kuhn Juvenile Detention Center in Julian said they center is no longer providing services in a secure and safe environment.
“For many years, the DRK center, along with the other regional centers, admirably fulfilled its mission in rehabilitating, educating and house the juveniles sent to them by the courts,” the board said in a letter to the Coal Valley News. “DRK delivered these services in a secure and safe environment. This is no longer true.”
The center was established in 2003 and became a part of a more contemporary and humane system of juvenile justice services in West Virginia. The facility is operated by the state of West Virginia and is used to house and rehabilitate criminals. Inmates at the center are generally housed in locked cells during the night and are provided certain privileges such as the use of a recreation area, TV, phones and in some cases may have a job within the prison.
However, after Mountain State Justice sued the state Division of Juvenile Services over conditions at the Salem Industrial Home, it was closed in 2013.
In a report by the Charleston Gazette in May 2014, the year after the closing of the Industrial Home for Youth in Salem, officials at the West Virginia Department of Juvenile Services were still scrambling to find permanent homes for youth offenders, the agency’s director told lawmakers during that year’s interim sessions of the Legislature.
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, the newspaper reported.
Stephanie Bond, acting director of the Department of Juvenile Services, told legislators during an interim Finance Committee meeting during that time that about three incidents linked to overcrowding, according to the Gazette’s story.
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, the newspaper reported.
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, 2014, one resident at the Donald R. Kuhn Center got into a fight with another resident, resulting in a broken jaw.
Bond told legislators then that the facility was at near-capacity and was double bunked.
Also in April, 2014, 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.
In another incident, 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.
For the DRK advisory board, the incident in May 2015 was the final act and they can no longer remain silent about their concerns for the safety of the youth, staff and community.
In the May 2015 incident, several staff members at a detention facility in Boone County were injured when they were attacked by a handful of juveniles at the center, a state official said.
One or two of the juveniles were armed with aluminum pipes when the incident occurred in the recreation area at the Donald R. Kuhn Juvenile Center in Julian, said Lawrence Messina, communications director for the West Virginia Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety.
Messina said some of the staff members sustained bruises and leg injuries and a broken wrist while they were detaining the juveniles. Some of the staff members were transported to Boone Memorial Hospital for treatment.
“There were 13 staff members sent to the hospital in that incident in May,” said advisory board member Delores Cook. “Though extreme, this is part of an escalating trend at the facility.”
The incident lasted about 10 or 15 minutes, and there was minimal property damage. Boone County sheriff’s deputies also responded.
Messina said the juveniles were returned to the detention center.
In Sept. 2014, three residents at a juvenile detention center in Boone County were assessed for internal disciplinary allegations after they damaged property during an incident at the facility, a state official reported.
Messina said the residents were objecting to their evening routine when the incident happened in the all-purpose room. The residents broke a window, ceiling lights and a flat screen TV, he said. Damage is estimated to be $5,000 or less.
State Police were called, but there was no lockdown of the facility. No other residents were involved and no injuries were reported.
One of the allegations at the time was that the residents fashioned some of the broken items into weapons.
At that time, 39 residents were being held at the 46-bed facility.
A telephone message to Messina from the Coal Valley News for this story has yet to be returned.
The issue seems to bet making sure juvenile offenders, particularly those with behavioral issues, are getting housed and treated at the right facilities.
“It seemed as if the center in Julian was operating smoothly, until the Salem home was shut down and the state began an overhaul of the juvenile detention system,” Cook said.
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.
In August 2013, the Associated Press reported that the state began an overhaul of juvenile detention system
West Virginia officials are shifting inmates and overhauling juvenile detention facilities to address concerns about how young offenders are treated, the AP reported.
The Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety plans at the time were to move juvenile sex offenders from the Harriet B. Jones Treatment Center in Harrison County to the Sam Perdue Treatment Center in Mercer County.
Juvenile offenders with behavioral or mental issues would be moved from the Harrison County facility to the James H. “Tiger” Morton Juvenile Center in Kanawha County.
Meanwhile, the Donald R. Kuhn Juvenile Center in Boone County became a new maximum- to medium-security facility, at a cost of about $2 million.
“This gives us the best ability — a great ability — to stabilize the system quickly and start treating the kids systemwide, like we’re designed to do,” department Secretary Joe Thornton told the Associated Press.
The overhaul of the juvenile justice system affected seven of the 11 facilities and followed the court rulings involving the system.
In July 2013, Circuit Judge Omar Aboulhosn ordered the state to relocate the Jones center or its residents by Sept. 30, 2013.
Earlier, the judge condemned conditions at the former Industrial Home for Youth in Salem, and the state closed the high-security facility.
Mountain State Justice, a public-interest law firm, sued over conditions at Salem that Aboulhosn determined were too prison-like for young offenders and focused too little on rehabilitation.
The Salem facility was turned into an adult prison.
Thornton said his department also wanted to resume control of the Gene Spadaro Juvenile Center in Fayette County, which the Department of Health and Human Resources used as a short-term detention facility for juveniles who repeatedly have run away or committed nonviolent crimes. They did resume control of that center.
According to national reports, West Virginia is one of a handful of states that has been moving in the opposite direction regarding the incarceration of juveniles. It confines juveniles at a rate 42 percent higher than the nation, and according to federal data, has had the largest jump in youth incarceration since 2001. The state places offenders as young as 10 in facilities such as detention centers and group homes.
On Dec. 11, 2014, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin received recommendations and a final report from the West Virginia Intergovernmental Task Force on Juvenile Justice.
In June 2014, the governor launched a comprehensive review of the state’s juvenile justice system and charged the task force with developing specific recommendations to strengthen and improve West Virginia’s juvenile system.
“As we continue to put emphasis on reforming West Virginia’s justice system, we must also move toward a more effective approach for juveniles – one that embraces community-based programming and tells our children we care about them and their future,” Gov. Tomblin said. “This comprehensive review provides us with the information we need to create better opportunities to improve outcomes for our youth and their families and increase accountability for juveniles and the justice system, while also protecting public safety and responsibly managing our state’s finances.”
The final report highlights the need for a stronger network of evidence-based programming in communities across the state, which will permit many lower-level offenders to be safely and more effectively held accountable in their home communities.
Among the specific recommendations: expanding opportunities for early intervention and diversion by providing additional tools in schools to address truancy; enhancing effective community services and expanding evidence-based options to give judges proven tools to reduce juvenile delinquency; increasing data collection and information sharing to ensure taxpayer dollars are used in the most efficient ways; and targeting system resources to the right youth at the right time to further reduce reoffending.
“The governor has always taken a lead on juvenile justice in West Virginia and will continue to do so,” said Chris Stadelman, a spokesman for the governor’s office.
The task force was established through a collaborative, bipartisan effort of West Virginia’s three branches of government. It focused on the state’s juvenile system including services provided through the Division of Juvenile Services, Department of Health and Human Resources and the Department of Education, according to the governor.
However, the recommendations contained in the report from the task force are focused solely on the increase in the number of status offenders and lower level misdemeanants entering West Virginia’s juvenile justice system and do not pertain to serious or violent crimes, which the advisory board of the Donald R. Kuhn Center says are the juvenile offenders that should be focused on to provide a more secure and safe environment.
To view recommendations made by the West Virginia Intergovernmental Task Force on Juvenile Justice, visit the online .pdf file of the report at http://www.governor.wv.gov/Documents/WV%20Report%20FINAL.pdf
During the process of making the report to the governor, the Task Force discovered a remarkable shift in the profile of youth entering West Virginia’s juvenile justice system over the past decade.
Succinctly, the vast majority of youth now entering West Virginia’s juvenile justice system are being adjudicated for lower-level offenses, including status offenses.
Status offenses are acts that would not be a crime if committed by an adult, such as truancy, consumption of alcohol or tobacco products, or running away from home. Delinquency offenses, on the other hand, are offenses that would be considered crimes regardless of age.
Board members said focusing on the status offenders my help in reducing overcrowding population problems, but they feel those youth sent to detention and correctional facilities are still facing worsening conditions, while staff, already beleaguered, leave in desperation.
“As a board, we have witnessed the facility’s administration struggle to cope with impossible conditions,” the board said in its letter. “Why is this so? First, the facility was not designed to service the current population mix and second, the facility does not have an adequate staff to client ratio.”
A 2014 Juvenile Justice Commission report said in part, “With the closing of the WV Industrial Home for Youth and the relocation of the Harriet Jones Sex Offender Program, the Division of Juvenile Services has undergone a realignment of facility functions. With these changes the number of beds substantially decreased. This led to significant concerns about overcrowding and mixed populations.”
In Jan. of this year, the Legislative Auditor’s Office reported that the state Division of Juvenile Services spent about $3.5 million to renovate a juvenile facility in Davis, W.Va., and then abandoned the project with the work uncomplete.
The report said the agency’s reasons for stopping the project were foreseeable when it began. The office recommended that the agency develop a procedure to gauge cost versus benefit for future construction and renovation projects.
The Associated Press reported that the agency began renovating the Davis Center after juveniles were transferred to a new facility in 2009. The project was halted around Dec. 2013.
In its response to the AP story, the agency says it leased the property from the state Division of Natural Resources. The agency said the DNR was working with other agencies to covert the property to a canning facility.
The board members said they have appealed for assistance from members of the state Supreme Court, the Juvenile Justice Commission and the state Legislature.
“We are compelled to caution against the easy, yet cynical response of blaming those in the trenches,” the advisory board said in its letter. “Rather, the current crisis calls for the leaders of the Tomblin Administration, the courts and the Legislature to work to address the current dangerous conditions in our state centers.”
Board members said they feared the state might try to do away with the advisory board or blame and even fire staff members.
“The employees are very well trained, the center is clean and operated well, but it is not equipped to handle the crisis and dangerous situations it currently finds itself in,” Cook said. “We want this serious issue to be taken up again by the governor, the Legislature and all the state agencies involved in juvenile justice in West Virginia. This must be addressed and investigated again due to the increased concern by so many for the safety of the kids and the staff at these centers.”
Fred Pace is an editor for Civitas Media. He can be reached at 304-369-1165, ext. 1661, in Madison; at 304-752-6950, ext. 1729 in Logan; by email at [email protected] or @fcpace62 on Twitter.