Rehabilitating Young Offenders

Since a 19-year-old boy died there under mysterious circumstances in 2009, West Virginia’s juvenile detention center in Salem has been under scrutiny, off and on. Allegations of mistreatment of young inmates – and sometimes, attacks on guards – prompted the state Supreme Court to appoint a monitor to look into the Division of Juvenile Services.

Now, two young men have sued the state, alleging inmates at Salem are subjected to a “regimen of dehumanization and isolation.” Hearings to obtain evidence in the case have been scheduled for September and November in Kanawha County.

Part of the problem at Salem involves age. Young men up to 21 years of age can be detained there as juveniles. Some of them already are hardened, vicious criminals, yet they are housed in close proximity to true children who are much younger. That alone is a recipe for trouble.

Some practices used in the past at the center were questionable. There have been complaints about placing children in solitary confinement, to the point that Salem officials have discontinued the practice. Before doing so, however, they pointed out separating some violent inmates from the general population was necessary for the safety of some youths.

Improvements have been made at Salem, and Division of Juvenile Services Director Dale Humphreys has asked legislators to look into operations at the center. He seems to believe they will find fewer reasons for concern than have been suggested by the two young men who filed the lawsuit.

After evidence in that action is heard, legislators should conduct a formal review – perhaps with a surprise inspection or two – of Salem. One goal should be to determine whether older inmates, perhaps beyond being rehabilitated, should be placed in a separate institution.

Juveniles housed at the Salem center are there because they committed crimes. That does not mean they are not entitled to humane treatment, however – and it certainly does not indicate that, at least for younger inmates, efforts at rehabilitation should be abandoned.