Before a scathing report was issued by a disability rights organization on the juvenile detention facility here, it gave local jail officials a chance to respond to a draft of the report.
But juvenile detention officials said Disability Rights Oregon didn’t incorporate those responses into its final report, with one exception. Jail officials say the report includes exaggerations and errors.
The attorney who wrote the report said a lot of the jail’s comments were incorporated, but she felt others were matters for the jail itself to bring up, rather than be included in the report.
The Dec. 5 DRO report, alleging punitive practices, caused a stir, with some counties – including Wasco – saying they would not be sending their kids there until issues were resolved, though others said they were confident the jail was a safe place for their youth.
Wasco County officials have since said they are comfortable with sending kids there and are likely to reverse their initial stance given the willingness of the jail board to resolve issues.
The jail takes kids from 17 counties and the Oregon Youth Authority. It is one of only two detention facilities in the state to offer long-term programming for youth.
The jail responded to the DRO draft report in a lengthy letter Nov. 27 from juvenile detention Manager Jeff Justesen. He listed changes already made or planned as a result of the report, and listed 18 statements in the report he felt were in error or were misinterpretations.
Sarah Radcliffe, staff attorney for DRO, who wrote the report, said she didn’t include “some of their messaging around proposed changes in response to the report.”
Changes listed included allowing journals and pens in cells, eliminating a written rules test for kids before they could attend class, and eliminating rules against youth asking the time, looking around, and looking out windows. Justesen also said visits and phone calls were no longer suspended for kids on disciplinary status (where they aren’t allowed to be around other kids), and books are only removed from rooms if youth have damaged them before on multiple occasions.
He also listed proposed changes like increased social time, and allowing kids to have more property with them.
As Justesen walked by some cells in a wing recently, he said one of the rules, like not looking around, comes from protecting kids’ privacy. A sizeable window in each cell door gives a clear view to the toilet, and a shower at the end of the wing only has a curtain on it, with clear panels at the top and bottom and a solid panel in the middle.
So when a youth is walked from their cell out of the wing, they are told to keep their eyes forward so they don’t peer into cells or at someone showering.
Radcliffe said she did list changes if she verified them herself, such as allowing kids to have journals and pens in their cells. She said, “they were just kind of aspirational changes on the eve of the report’s release.” She said, “I feel like that didn’t belong in the report because the report’s designed to accurately reflect a moment in time.”
She said the changes listed were “a step in the right direction,” but added, “I think turning NORCOR into a therapeutic environment for kids is going to take more than eliminating some of the obviously inappropriate rules.”
More needed to be done, she said, including staff training on effects of childhood trauma – which the overwhelming majority of incarcerated kids suffer from -- and crisis intervention training. Outside the jail walls, she said broader community support, such as more foster homes and treatment programs, was needed to keep kids out of jail in the first place.
In two other changes she made to the report, Justesen asked her to change data that NORCOR had originally given her regarding the number of youth who were there on serious crimes, and also how many kids were on psychotropic medication.
Radcliffe updated the data on serious criminal offenders, but decided to leave out entirely the data on youth on psychotropic medication because the initial and updated information were widely divergent.
She also made sure in the report to be clear about where it relied on staff documentation, on written policy, and on a youth interview.
She said a second category of responses from the jail were instances where “they’re not necessarily disputing what the policies said, “but they’re saying, ‘We don’t follow our own policies.’”
“We talked to several kids who described a punitive response to self harm type of behavior. [They were] put in isolation basically,” she said.
“So we relied on what kids reported to us and what their policy states. It says this special program disciplinary status can be used on kids who are highly suicidal.”
Justesen wrote in his response, “While that is how the policy reads, no youth is disciplined for being suicidal.”
He also said no youth has ever been sanctioned for scratching their arm, as the report stated. No documentation existed indicating such an event happened, he said.
“That behavior would result in a referral to mental health,” Justesen said.
Radcliffe said the jail response that “it’s confusing and we don’t actually follow our own policy.’ And I figured that’s a response for them to offer to the media.”Also in that category were stringent written restrictions on visitation, which Justesen said were actually not followed in practice, because exemptions were always allowed. She said there were no parameters or documentation around exemptions, “so we didn’t think that that belonged in the report.”