Changes ‘in the works’ for youths held at NORCOR

By NEITA CECIL, The Dalles Chronicle

File photo by Patrick Mulvihill

File photo by Patrick Mulvihill

Wasco County officials reversed themselves Friday and said they would be comfortable lodging youth in the local juvenile detention facility after announcing Wednesday they would send juveniles elsewhere following a critical report on the facility.

An emergency meeting of the Northern Oregon Regional Corrections Facility board was held Friday morning. Wasco County asked for the meeting, prompted by the Dec. 5 release of a scathing 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, 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 mental issues, leading to more punishment and isolation.

The juvenile facility agreed with DRO that some changes needed to be made, and a number have already been implemented 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 board consensus was that the youth in the facility are safe.

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 to 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 rules before kids are being 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); 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 and providing more contact visits (instead of through glass) — were reflected in the final DRO report. He listed 18 points in the report that he contested as wrong or misleading, but he 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 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 a letter to the media about the report. As reported in the Dec. 8 Chronicle, 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 formed soon.

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