Youth Detention System a Wreck

A judge’s orders to close two juvenile detention centers in West Virginia may do little more than shift severe problems with how youthful offenders are handled to different locations. What’s wrong is the people, not the places.

Earlier this year, after hearing of assaults and other maltreatment of juvenile offenders at the state’s strangely named Industrial Home for Youth at Salem, Kanawha County Circuit Judge Omar Aboulhosn ordered the facility be closed. Its youthful inmates should be transferred elsewhere, he said.

Then, last week, Aboulhosn ordered closure of the second youth detention facility at Salem, the Harriet B. Jones Treatment Center. He took the action after hearing an allegation a 15-year-old detainee was sexually assaulted by a 20-year-old “juvenile.”

Another allegation heard by the judge was that a young corrections officer was sexually assaulted by a more senior co-worker.

Even more troubling were allegations officials at the Jones home dragged their feet on making changes ordered by the judge last November. Aboulhosn acted then after hearing testimony juvenile inmates were being denied weekly telephone calls, were being strip-searched inappropriately, and were being locked in their cells unnecessarily during the day.

Obviously, West Virginia’s system of handling juvenile detentions – if it can be called a “system” – leaves much to be desired. For one thing, state law allows men and women up to 20 years of age to be housed in close proximity to much younger juvenile delinquents. That ought to be changed immediately.

Aboulhosn now has ordered closure of both juvenile facilities at Salem. That will not be enough. Changes in policies and personnel are needed, too.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and his staff are working on the problem. Clearly, they need to put more pressure on corrections officials to conduct a top-to-bottom housecleaning. Otherwise, some youthful offenders who might be rehabilitated will, instead, become hardened criminals.