CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The West Virginia Division of Juvenile Services has partially settled a lawsuit over the treatment of juvenile offenders in state facilities, agreeing to change how it handles suicidal youths.
The lawsuit by Mountain State Justice alleges that inmates at the Industrial Home for Youth in Salem are illegally strip-searched, placed in solitary confinement, and denied adequate access to exercise and educational materials. It was filed in April with the state Supreme Court, which later moved the case to Kanawha County Circuit Court.
The Supreme Court appointed Mercer County Circuit Court Judge Omar Aboulhosn to hear the case. Aboulhosn approved the partial settlement Monday and scheduled more hearings for November, according to the Charleston Daily Mail.
Juvenile Services Deputy Director Denny Dodson called the agreement a "significant positive step for the whole juvenile justice system."
An expert report filed before the settlement described conditions at Salem as "overly brutal" and "harsh and abusive," and called some operational policies -- such as arbitrary rules for girls' hair -- nonsensical.
In August, former corrections and child welfare official Paul DeMuro interviewed 27 residents at Salem and the adjacent Harriet Jones Treatment Center, and concluded that the operation "fails to comply with widely accepted juvenile justice institutional practices and standards."
Among them, he said, was the staff's excessive and unnecessary reliance on isolation, which he called "harmful and counterproductive."
Young offenders put on suicide watch can be locked in their rooms or in a special unit with little human contact and no counseling, DeMuro's report said.
"This practice makes no sense," he wrote. "Such cruel conditions serve only to increase a youth's depression and anxiety. And youth are much more likely to commit suicide when they are locked into an isolation cell."
In the settlement, the state agrees that young offenders should not be isolated as often, should be quickly assessed by a counselor and should be offered a regular diet rather than cold "finger food."
"The whole suicide policy is going to be looked at, studied," Dodson said.