Judge orders changes at troubled W.Va. youth home

MORGANTOWN (AP) — A judge on Friday ordered West Virginia lawmakers and officials to make serious changes at the state’s only high-security juvenile corrections facility early next year, warning that he won’t hesitate to step in if they don’t.

Circuit Judge Omar Aboulhosn said his intervention could mean ordering the removal of residents from the Industrial Home for Youth at Salem, but his 26-page order notes that state lawmakers also have the power to close the facility.

Military Affairs and Public Safety Secretary Joe Thornton said dealing with Salem is “high on the governor’s priority list” and something that has been discussed over the past few weeks.

At this point, though, he said, “I don’t see that facility necessarily going anywhere.”

“It’s just more of a mode of doing things,” Thornton said, “of gearing away from a corrections environment to more of a treatment program, rehabilitative mode,”

The judge’s ruling, he said, gives Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s administration time to work with the Legislature on solutions.

“It’s about the kids and it needs to be about the kids, and that’s the governor’s feeling, too,” he said. “There are some good things going on in the Division of Juvenile Services, but there are certainly some adjustments that are needed.”

Aboulhosn, a Mercer County judge assigned by the state Supreme Court to hear a Mountain State Justice lawsuit in Kanawha County, ruled that the Division of Juvenile Services and Salem officials are violating the due-process rights of young offenders.

And while he credited the state for recent changes, he said they may not be enough to restore those rights.

The judge said he agreed with virtually all the recommendations of an expert witness who testified that a major overhaul is needed.

Paul DeMuro told the court last month that Salem’s Building A is too prison-like for children and young adults, with past practices including solitary confinement and the denial of exercise and educational materials.

The judge agreed, ruling that Salem follows an outdated reform-school model with harsh tactics that harden the offenders’ attitudes and lead to higher recidivism. That recidivism, he said, “threatens public safety.”

Though there will be a small number of juveniles who require stricter confinement, the judge said many of the 74 residents likely belong in different settings.

He ordered DJS and youth home officials to begin individual assessments to determine whether any should be transferred to another juvenile facility.

The Salem complex houses offenders ages 10 to 21, often putting children with misdemeanor offenses in the same unit as those convicted of murder and other felonies.

Historically, the judge said, the facility focused more on punishment than rehabilitation — a goal inconsistent with the Legislature’s stated intent.

The state ended solitary confinement at juvenile facilities earlier this year, and a report from the court-appointed monitor noted other positive changes. They included not only program changes but also cosmetic touches such as ordering new mattresses, swapping prison jumpsuits for polo shirts and putting up decorations for the holidays. Superintendent David Jones also talked directly to staff throughout the facility about the new approaches that are needed, the report said.

But it’s up to the Legislature and the executive branch to make the necessary physical changes and determine if Building A itself can be rehabilitated, Aboulhosn said.

Should they fail to correct the problems that have been identified, the judge wrote, “this court will not hesitate to mandate action, including the removal of residents from the facility.”

Lawmakers can craft the solution they see fit, Aboulhosn wrote.

“However, at a minimum,”  he said, “they should either purge Building A of all juveniles or make changes to the physical plant to comply with the law that they have imposed upon themselves regarding minimum standards for juvenile facilities.”

The judge scheduled the next hearing on the matter for Jan. 11 in Charleston and said he’ll hold more as needed.

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