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Wasco County backs juvenile facility

Wasco County will likely reverse its Wednesday decision to stop sending youth to the local juvenile detention facility in reaction to a scathing report on the facility, with a county official saying Friday he was comfortable with sending local youth there.

An emergency meeting of the Northern Oregon Regional Corrections Facility board was held Friday morning. Wasco County asked for the meeting in a Wednesday letter, which it sent to local media. It was prompted by the Dec. 5 release of a report on the facility by Disability Rights Oregon (DRO).

The DRO report said conditions at the facility were “inhumane,” with some youth kept isolated from others for weeks at a time and juveniles being made to follow punitive, archaic and counterproductive rules like not looking around or asking the time.

Some youth behaviors, including those caused by mental issues, resulted in punishment and isolation, the report said, which only exacerbated those mental issues, leading to continued punishment and isolation.

The juvenile facility strongly disagreed with some contentions in the report, including that conditions were inhumane, but did agree with DRO that some changes needed to be made. A number were already implemented before the report came out, and several more are in the works.

“I think we all feel a lot better about the juveniles here,” said Rod Runyon, chair of the jail board and chair of the Wasco County Commission. “I feel very good personally about Wasco County kids being in NORCOR.”

The jail board consensus was that the youth in the facility are safe. The Wasco County Commission will formally revisit its decision to pull kids from NORCOR at a later commission meeting and will likely reverse course given the willingness of the jail board to resolve issues raised.

The jail board agreed to issue a letter that clearly lists changes already made and those in the works, and will also lay out where the facility disagrees with what the report stated and why. The letter is expected early next week. It will explain that the report is being taken seriously and steps are already in place to address it.

“We are a long way towards resolving many, many of the issues” brought up in the report, said Jail Administrator Bryan Brandenburg.

Juvenile Detention Manager Jeff Justesen was afforded the opportunity to respond to a draft version of the DRO report, and in a Nov. 27 letter, he listed changes already made, including: allowing kids to have journals and pens in their cells; eliminating a written test on 62 rules before kids are allowed to attend class; eliminating rules against looking around, looking out windows, or asking the time; no longer suspending calls and visits for kids on disciplinary status (where they are not allowed to be with other youth, which DRO classifies as isolation or solitary confinement); allowing books in cells; and adding posters/art to walls throughout the facility.

Justesen earlier noted to the Chronicle that almost none of the changes he listed, or proposed changes — including increased social time for kids, adding clocks to walls, and providing more contact visits (instead of only through glass) — were reflected in the final DRO report.

He also listed 18 points in the report that he contested as wrong or misleading, but said only one was changed, which concerned the percentage of kids medicated for mental issues. (It was around 30 percent, not 80 percent as the report initially stated.)

The board also discussed strengthening the juvenile directors oversight committee, which is made up of the juvenile directors from the four member counties that run NORCOR: Wasco, Hood River, Sherman and Gilliam.

Envisioned is making that committee on par with what happens on the adult side of the regional jail, where a sheriffs board — made up of the sheriffs’ from the four counties — inspects the jail to ensure it is adhering to operational standards promulgated by the Oregon State

Sheriffs’ Association.

Gilliam County Sheriff Gary Bettencourt offered to help the juvenile directors with setting up a process for inspections.

A few years ago, the state juvenile directors association discussed creating a similar process to what the sheriffs had, but it was turned down, Justesen said. He said the DRO report may cause the group to revisit the idea.

Within the regional jail itself, there was talk some years ago about strengthening the role of juvenile directors. One juvenile director sits on the board in a non-voting capacity, while the sheriff representative is a voting member. A proposal to give the juvenile representative a vote was defeated.

The DRO report called for setting state standards for running juvenile facilities, and also for ending what it called isolation at NORCOR, and what the facility refers to as disciplinary status.

As a result of the DRO report, which was covered by media around the state, several of the 17 counties that use the juvenile detention facility have “paused” sending their youth there. But other counties have said that they know kids there are safe and they support the facility.

The Oregon Youth Authority will be visiting the juvenile facility next week so they can advise the governor on their opinion on continuing to use NORCOR, Justesen said.

At the meeting, Wasco County was taken to task for unilaterally issuing its letter to the media about the report, in which it said it would not be sending its youth to NORCOR.

Hood River County Commissioner Ron Rivers, who represents his county on the jail board, said, “This is a four-county institution that we have here.

“We don’t act autonomously to the press. If there’s something that has to be done, it’s done on a board level.”

Wasco County also asked in its letter for an independent review of the facility, and the membership of that ad hoc committee will be formulated.


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