Juvenile Justice officials want to save, restructure Salem facility
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The superintendent of the West Virginia Industrial Home for Youth said Friday that he doesn't want to dismantle the youth facility, favoring instead a plan to retrain staff members and make major changes that aim to shuck its "maximum security" designation.
Superintendent David W. Jones said during a status hearing Friday in Kanawha Circuit Court that the Salem facility's architecture, which experts have said is like an adult prison, has little to do with how well its youngsters are rehabilitated.
"To say it's impossible to provide adequate rehabilitation to young people in [Salem], I find that ridiculous," Jones testified before Circuit Judge Omar Aboulhosn. "I think the people that we have -- they make it work."
Last year, public-interest law firm Mountain State Justice sued the West Virginia Division of Juvenile Services on claims that the Salem facility was ill suited to house children and that its staff strip-searched and confined inmates in violation of state code.
Juvenile Services officials have since agreed to purge the facility of illegal and outdated practices and work with Mountain State Justice to improve the environment.
A consultant the firm hired to study Salem, however, found that a "culture of control" will always pervade the facility because of its cement floors, fixed furniture and segregation cells that do not receive natural light.
During an evidentiary hearing in November, Juvenile Services officials chose not to challenge those findings, and Aboulhosn issued an order last month that called for state lawmakers to implement major changes to the residential unit or abandon it entirely and relocate its population.
Morale among the facility's staffers has plummeted since then, Jones said Friday.
"Quite frankly, it's caused panic," he said, adding that 25 staff members have resigned since July and several of his best employees are searching for new jobs.
Denny Dodson, deputy director of the Juvenile Services Division, said state officials hope to save Salem and its staff by downgrading the facility to medium security while also focusing on efforts to expand the use of statewide youth reporting centers.
According to a plan Dodson submitted before he testified Friday, some of the preliminary changes to Salem include:
• Relocating female residents to the soon-to-be-renovated Kenneth Honey Rubenstein Juvenile Center in Davis. Currently, Salem is the only corrections facility in the state that can house female juveniles.
• Moving the most dangerous residents to the Chick Buckbee Juvenile Center in Augusta. Dodson said that no more than 10 or 15 children would be placed there and Jones agreed that moving those residents would help foster a less-restrictive environment at Salem.
• Redesigning many aspects of the Salem facility, including adding "wet cells," or cells with toilets and sinks, and removing locked doors on other cells so residents have access to the bathrooms
• Expanding the facility's mental-health services.
Officials also have taken steps to improve other aspects of the facility, Jones said. The cellblock once used for segregation is being repainted and converted into a recreation area. Jones also ordered new polo-shirt uniforms for the residents and staff and allowed the residents to decorate their rooms and have personal items.
The parties will meet again in the coming months to discuss changes to the facility's policies to deal with suicidal youth. Aboulhosn eventually will issue a final order on his findings.
Reach Zac Taylor at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5189.