By Lawrence Messina
West Virginia officials announced plans Friday to convert a Harrison County juvenile facility into an adult prison, believing that should resolve a lawsuit targeting conditions there while easing crowding in the state’s regional jails.
Lawyers for the Division of Juvenile Services outlined the plan for Salem’s Industrial Home for Youth to Circuit Judge Omar Aboulhosn at a Friday hearing. The judge is overseeing the lawsuit and previously agreed with many of its allegations. Officials also briefed Salem staff about the proposal Friday.
“This plan very well I think would go a long way toward alleviating these concerns,” Aboulhosn said during the hearing. He said he would give the petitioners’ lawyers, from the public interest firm Mountain State Justice, time to look over the plan.
Under the plan, the 49 juveniles now in Salem’s main building would move to other agency-run facilities. That would likely fill up remaining beds at those facilities, said Military Affairs and Public Safety Secretary Joe Thornton, whose department includes Juvenile Services as well as the Division of Corrections and the regional jails.
Officials then hope to transfer at least 300 minimum- to medium-security inmates who have been sentenced to prison but are serving their sentences in regional jails. West Virginia’s prisons are at capacity, while the 10 regional jails are either full or have more inmates than they were designed to hold. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin has proposed legislation drawn from a recent study of the crowding crisis by the nonpartisan Justice Reinvestment Initiative. But that measure, if passed, would mostly blunt the projected growth in the state’s inmate population.
Corrections Commissioner Jim Rubenstein told The Associated Press ahead of the court hearing that his agency hoped to convert Salem by July 1, and expected needing few upgrades. Aboulhosn has condemned prison-like conditions at the facility, which houses juveniles convicted of murder and violent crime. Rubenstein noted the plan would place lower-risk adult offenders there.
“Not having to renovate the existing facility takes care of one large aspect of the concerns that the court had,” Aboulhosn said Friday.
After individual assessments, juveniles at Salem would be moved to a facility in Hampshire County, while a Boone County facility would handle those with mental health issues, according to the plan.
But officials must still find a suitable facility for 23 juvenile sex offenders housed in a separate building on the Salem campus. Stephanie Bond, the new acting director of Juvenile Services, told the AP that these offenders require a secure setting that can offer rehabilitation along with conditions and programs appropriate for juveniles.
Rubenstein said that building at Salem, the Dr. Harriet B. Jones Treatment Center, appears the ideal site for a long-term, in-patient substance abuse program for adults.
Mountain State Justice is reviewing the state’s plan, said Lydia Milnes, one of its lawyers in the case. While pleased that the agency seeks to reorganize the way it handles these juvenile offenders, Milnes said ensuring they receive the proper rehabilitation and services at whichever facility houses them remains a chief concern.
Aboulhosn’s December ruling warned that the court would mandate changes unless lawmakers or state officials addressed Salem’s outdated and dangerous conditions. He described spare furnishings, small windows and cells that lack bathrooms at a facility that treated youths the same whether they had committed a minor misdemeanor or a serious felony.
Citing expert testimony, the judge found Salem’s main building followed a training or reform school approach increasingly considered a failure and particularly harmful to youths age 14 and younger. It is also more expensive than the prevailing community-based approach of focusing on smaller groups to steer juveniles away from further crimes, his ruling said.
“What we are trying to do is separate those individuals from the Industrial Home to facilities that can deal with their specific individual needs, in a treatment-type atmosphere,” Bond told the AP. “We’re going to separate the females, the younger kids from the older kids.”
Juveniles ranging from ages 12 to 20 are now at Salem. Individuals convicted of juvenile offenses can be in juvenile custody until their 21st birthday.
“A 12-year-old should never be housed with a 20-year-old,” Thornton said. “I don’t care how mature you are as a 12-year-old, it’s just not a good setting.”
Officials said they will spend next week working with those among Salem’s 175 or so staffers who wish to remain with the department. As the facility is a major area employer, they also have scheduled a town hall-style meeting for 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday at the Salem armory.