CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A judge issued a tentative order Friday that could result in the closure of West Virginia's only high-security youth prison and pave the way for sweeping changes in the state's juvenile justice system.
After finding that the West Virginia Industrial Home for Youth in Salem is in violation of state code by its treatment of juvenile offenders, Judge Omar J. Aboulhosn issued an order that calls on state lawmakers to either make drastic changes to the facility or abandon it and relocate its population.
Friday's order is in response to a lawsuit filed by public-interest law firm Mountain State Justice, which claimed that the Salem facility's staffers illegally strip-searched and confined inmates and instituted other practices that directly contradict portions of state code that define juvenile rights.
Lawmakers will have until the end of the upcoming legislative session to find a way to remedy deficiencies in the facility. If they fail to do so, the judge will mandate the changes himself, which might include a direct order to close Salem, Aboulhosn said in the order.
One of the main problems of the Salem facility is that it's built like an adult prison, with steel doors, cement floors, fixed furniture and individual segregation cells, according to Paul DeMuro, a consultant with Mountain State Justice who was hired to study the facility.
DeMuro said the architecture creates a "culture of control" that does not lend to rehabilitation, the stated goal of juvenile centers in West Virginia.
"People react in a way their environs support," DeMuro testified during a hearing last month. "You go to church, you pray. You go to the courts, you play tennis."
State Division of Juvenile Services officials were out of the office Friday and could not be reached for comment.
The division generally has been willing to correct problems with the facility and its occupants.
Last spring, for instance, Juvenile Services Director Dale Humphreys ordered an end to solitary confinement. In September, the division agreed to change policies that called for staffers to place suicidal youths on lockdown with no human contact or counseling.
Cindy Largent-Hill, a court monitor whom the parties agreed should oversee those preliminary changes, reported earlier this month that the center's superintendent, David W. Jones, has implemented more changes that indicate more of a focus on "rehabilitative needs, programs and treatment for all residents."