Wasco County is again sending its youth to the juvenile facility at the regional jail, after briefly opting to send youth elsewhere on the heels of a report that was highly critical of the facility.

Two of the three commissioners met in a work session last Thursday and by consensus gave authority for staff to resume sending youth there. That direction will be confirmed by the full commission at its Dec. 27 meeting, said Wasco County Commission Chair Rod Runyon.

Disability Rights Oregon issued a highly critical report Dec. 5, and the county, along with a few of the 17 counties that send youth to the facility, decided to stop sending youth there.

The county asked that an independent assessment be done of the jail, and officials are working on the details and timing of that, said Jeff Justesen, juvenile detention manager at Northern Oregon Regional Corrections Facilities.

In a spot of good news for the regional jail during the spate of critical publicity following the report, the adult side of the jail recently scored an almost unheard-of 306 out of 309 points on a facility audit.

The audit is done every two years by the Oregon State Sheriffs Association (OSSA), the regional jail board heard last Thursday.

“It was the best report I’ve ever heard,” said Sheriff Brad Lohrey, who represents sheriffs on the regional jail board.

Any policy changes needed were quickly fixed. “I heard absolutely nothing that would cause concern for us sheriffs,” he said.

He said the eight auditors were “really, really impressed” with the jail.

The inspection only covers the adult side.

Wasco County Sheriff Lane Magill said OSSA standards are “a very high bar and we’re one of the few jails that rank as high as we do.”

The juvenile side of the facility does not have a similar inspection process by any entity. The DRO report urged that such inspections become mandatory.

The report contended the facility used a punitive rather than healing approach and had outdated methods and poor recordkeeping.

The jail has made some changes as a result of the report, but also disputes some claims in it.

At the jail meeting last Thursday, Jail Administrator Bryan Brandenburg went over the budget and said with an increased inmate population because of a contract to house prisoners from Benton County, supply costs have gone up.

“You wouldn’t believe how much we spend on toilet paper. More than you could imagine,” he said.

Benton County has determined that pre-trial inmates can only be housed in The Dalles with their permission, but many inmates sign the waiver because they much prefer The Dalles, Brandenburg said.

The regional jail also cooks its own food as opposed to the frozen food that gets served in Benton County, he said. “They have a lot more open space and freedom, the food is freshly cooked,” and there’s programming available. “They like it here.”

They also noted the jail here was cleaner than the one in Benton County.

Brandenburg also said he saw an intriguing model for treating the mentally ill in Arizona.

A facility there has a drop-in center for prescription refills and it also has a crisis respite section, and a 15-bed hold facility.

It was a combination of services to meet a multitude of needs, he said. Police officers can drop off a mentally ill person and be back out the door in less than 10 minutes, he said.

Agencies in the gorge, from law enforcement to mental health counselors to hospitals, struggle to cope with the mentally ill who commit crimes, usually minor offenses like public urination or disorderly conduct.

Without adequate treatment beds, they often end up in jail.

Brandenburg would like to work with Mid-Columbia Medical Center and the Greater Oregon Behavioral Health Inc. (GOBHI) on creating a similar type of facility.

Brandenburg is in the early stages of talks with GOBHI about converting an unused part of the jail into a mental health treatment wing.

It would offer security, laundry and kitchen services, and the jail would rent out the facility and those services while GOBHI ran the program, he said.

GOBHI wants a 30-day in-patient facility and a 90-day after-care program.

Sherman County Commissioner Tom McCoy, who represents Sherman County on the jail board, said, “The biggest problem we have is mentally ill people are put in jail just because we have nowhere to put them.”

Magill has a list of about 10 people in the county who are mentally ill and frequently end up in jail.

Brandenburg also recapped developments regarding the housing of immigration detainees.

The ACLU of Oregon cited a legal decision that required outdoor recreation for detainees, he said.

Because the legal ruling was so specifically relevant to the situation at NORCOR, Brandenburg said he knew he needed to act “sooner rather than later.” Now, outdoor recreation is available on weekends.

Immigration detainees did a second hunger strike this fall – their last one was last spring – and Brandenburg said he has agreed to give them milk instead of a calcium fortified fruit drink, plus one free hour of visiting a week, and they can keep their own property, including clothing like t-shirts.

Brandenburg said he gave a tour of the jail to Mat Dos Santos from the ACLU. “To show them that what they had been told wasn’t necessarily the truth.”

Sherman County Juvenile Director Amber DeGrange, the alternate representative to the jail board for juvenile directors, said the juvenile directors would become more active in the juvenile facility in light of the critical DRO report.

A number of changes have already been made as a result of the report, including dropping rules seen as punitive, but DeGrange said, “We don’t want to come in and dump a whole bunch of things on the staff and have a mutiny.”

Jim Patterson, juvenile director for Hood River County, said the report did not “illustrate the success that happens” in juvenile detention.

Brandenburg said some changes have been underway for awhile now that would allow existing staff to provide programming. Doing that requires personnel with a master’s degree or higher, but Brandenburg and another juvenile director do have master’s degrees.

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