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Kids are out, at Salem prison

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- After agreeing that the state's only maximum-security juvenile prison is "counterproductive to the goals of juvenile rehabilitation," government officials announced Friday that the West Virginia Industrial Home for Youth in Salem will be converted to a low- to mid-level adult prison, and the juveniles there now will be shifted to other facilities.

Assistant Attorney General Dan Greear said during a status hearing Friday in Kanawha Circuit Court that juvenile services officials have agreed to reassess and relocate the young offenders serving time in Salem and close the facility completely by July 1.

After that, the prison will be retooled as a low- to mid-level adult facility. The juveniles will be shifted to either the Donald R. Kuhn Center in Boone County or the J.M. "Chick" Buckbee Center, which also will be relabeled a mid- to maximum-security facility.

"We think we can do a better job of rehabilitating our juveniles," said Rob Alsop, chief of staff to Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin.

Friday's decision was another benchmark in a lawsuit filed last year by public-interest law office Mountain State Justice, which claimed that the Salem facility is unsuited to house and rehabilitate youngsters.

Mercer County Circuit Judge Omar Aboulhosn, who is presiding over the case in Kanawha County, issued an order in December finding that Salem, with its treatment of juveniles, is in violation of state law. The judge called on lawmakers to draft legislation to fix the problem.

Tomblin is expected to propose a bill that would dissolve the Division of Juvenile Services' control over Salem, effective July 1. In the meantime, the division will begin the process of transferring incarcerated juveniles.

Alsop said all employees at Salem will have the option to either stay at the facility when it becomes an adult prison or relocate to another juvenile center.

"One of the most important things Governor Tomblin said was to make sure those employees have other options and we don't talk about a job loss," Alsop said. "The community does not deserve that."

Salem's new adult-prison designation is expected to help alleviate, if only temporarily, the state's massive prison and jail overcrowding issues, Alsop said.

Last April, Mountain State Justice filed its lawsuit against the Division of Juvenile Services, alleging that staffers at the Salem facility 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.

"What we've always contended is that there's an entrenched culture at Salem that is difficult to change," MSJ lawyer Lydia Milnes said.

Milnes said the parties still have to iron out some of the details surrounding the switch. For one, it's not clear if the Chick Buckbee facility's potential "medium-maximum" security designation will mean that the two populations will be mixed.

"It's one of the questions on my mind," Milnes said. "I'm interested to hear what the division determines on that front."

Tomblin spokeswoman Amy Shuler Goodwin said the Buckbee facility will not need renovations to accommodate the juveniles in maximum security who are leaving Salem.

Goodwin also said that Salem's female population will be relocated to the Gene Spadaro Juvenile Center in Fayette County, but that the details of that move have not been ironed out.

Aboulhosn commended the parties in the case Friday for coming up with a solution that saves the state from having to put tax dollars toward constructing a new juvenile facility.

Also Friday, Marshall University's Center for Business and Economic Research released a white-paper analysis suggesting ways to reduce the state's juvenile prison population.

A recent Annie E. Casey Foundation study found that, while national juvenile incarceration levels have ebbed to a 35-year low, the levels in West Virginia have increased 60 percent since 1997.

The analysis suggested that, based on other states' practices, West Virginia should reserve incarceration only for juveniles who have committed serious offenses and opt for community-based alternatives for youth convicted of lesser crimes.

The CBER report also said the state should expand funding for child-care and pre-kindergarten programs based on studies that suggest students who attend preschool are more likely to graduate from high school and are less likely to commit crimes.

"Too often short term 'fixes' are substituted for longer range but more desirable alternatives," the report said. "The necessary study should begin now. The State has the potential to create a better and less costly environment that should not be overlooked."

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


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