10:06am: Talkline with Hoppy Kercheval

Union: Juvenile correctional officers fearful

One night last month, six of the 20 residents at the Lorrie Yeager Jr. Juvenile Center in Parkersburg went on a rampage. They took control of a commons area, forcing correctional officers to retreat and protect residents who were not part of the riot.

The unruly offenders broke windows and furniture, damaged the heating and cooling system and crafted weapons out of the debris.  It took a couple of hours for correctional officers to regain control of the situation.

The problem at Yeager is illustrative of the challenges to West Virginia’s juvenile justice system as it attempts to comply with a court order to improve how the state treats youthful offenders.

The court stepped in two years ago when the public interest law firm Mountain State Justice filed suit raising concerns about conditions at the Industrial Home for Youth and the Harriet B. Jones Treatment Center in Salem.

Officials ended up closing the Salem facilities and transferring the youthful offenders to other facilities across the state, including the Lorrie Yeager Center. Additionally, the juvenile system made policy changes in treatment and discipline that are more in line with the rest of the country.

One change limits correctional officers’ authority to place offenders in isolation for rules violations.  That used to be a common form of discipline that correctional officers came to rely upon to keep the residents in line.

Elaine Harris of the Communications Workers of America, which represents the correctional officers, says the policy change has created confusion and fear among officers trying to maintain control.

“They didn’t get the proper training and the tools they need to do their jobs,” Harris told me.  “They’re not exactly sure what they can do. They are scared.”

Harris says she’s heard concerns from correctional officers at two other juvenile facilities, as well as Yeager.   “I’m just concerned that (correctional officers) are fearful,” she said.

Stephanie Bond, the Acting Director of Juvenile Services, acknowledges there has been a learning curve for correctional officers in the changes in how they maintain security.

“Ideally, it would have been great if we would have had a lot of training and education prior to this change,” Bond said on Metronews Talkline Monday.  She adds, however, that they are now catching up. Trainers are conducting refresher courses at Yeager and other facilities.

“We’re changing some of our security practices there,” Bond said.  Also, correctional officers have conducted a facility-wide search for contraband.

Bond stresses that correctional officers can still isolate juvenile residents, but only after out-of-control behavior. Also, she says correctional officers are trained to physically restrain residents using pressure point control tactics.

Additionally, Bond has made staff changes.  Shortly after the riot, Bond replaced Yeager director Janet Haines.  Division of Juvenile Services assistant director Jim Goddard is now overseeing all operations at Yeager.

It was clearly the right move to close Salem and update how the state detains and treats juvenile offenders.  However, as the riot at Yeager and the concern by some correctional officers about their own safety indicate, the transition has its challenges.












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