Nighttime attack exposes security weakness in Oklahoma's juvenile detention system

A nighttime attack that caused a brain injury to a boy at a Tecumseh juvenile correctional institution also exposed a security weakness within Oklahoma's juvenile detention system.
BY RANDY ELLIS rellis@opubco.com Published: August 29, 2011

A vicious nighttime attack that caused a brain injury to a boy at a Tecumseh institution for juvenile offenders spotlighted a security weakness within Oklahoma's juvenile system.

When the Legislature decided to close the L.E. Rader Center in Sand Springs, the system lost its capability to lock violence-prone juvenile offenders in their rooms at night.

The victim was “in bed with the covers pulled up” when he was severely beaten by another juvenile on the evening of Aug. 5, said Pottawatomie County District Attorney Richard Smothermon, who has received an investigative report on the incident.

Smothermon didn't know whether the victim was asleep, but he said both the victim and the suspect recently had been transferred from the L.E. Rader Center, Oklahoma's most secure juvenile facility. All children now have been moved out of the Rader Center, which is in the process of being shut down.

The Rader Center's intensive treatment program unit — the last unit to close there — had sleeping rooms that were locked at night, said Gene Christian, executive director of the Oklahoma Office of Juvenile Affairs.

The sleeping rooms at the medium-security Central Oklahoma Juvenile Center in Tecumseh, where the attack occurred, are cubbyholes off a large community room. They do not have doors and can't be locked, he said.

House Speaker Kris Steele, R-Shawnee, said he is concerned about the incident and whether a situation exists that endangers the safety of state juveniles and employees.

“It's a dilemma,” Steele said. “I'm not going to shy away from that. It's certainly an issue that I'm concerned about, and I hope will be a priority for the Legislature.”

Christian said juvenile and medical confidentiality laws prevent him from releasing any information about the names or ages of the two boys or the extent of the victim's injuries or current condition.

For similar reasons, Smothermon said he couldn't discuss any legal proceedings involving the suspect unless and until the suspect should happen to be certified as an adult.

Privacy considerations

Paula Christiansen, spokeswoman for the Office of Juvenile Affairs, said nighttime safety of juveniles at the Tecumseh center is dependent on staff members assigned to walk through the unit and video cameras that monitor the community room, but not the sleeping areas because of privacy considerations. At times the attention of staff members can be diverted by the actions of other youth, she said.

When the decision was made to close Rader, agency plans initially called for a new maximum security unit to be built.

However, those plans were abandoned last winter after scandal erupted over state Sen. Harry Coates having an extramarital affair with a lobbyist for Rite of Passage, a juvenile correctional facility operator. Rite of Passage initially was selected to operate a planned nonsecure 144-bed campus in Ada that was to be coupled with the construction of about 50 maximum-security beds at Tecumseh, but the contract signing was called off amid allegations of a compromised bidding process.

The Office of Juvenile Affairs' board of directors voted to scrap plans for the center in February, citing expected budget cuts and rising operational costs.

Christian said violent confrontations are a problem within the state's juvenile institutions, and the problem is made worse by a combination of an “antiquated physical plant” and restrictions imposed by a settlement agreement reached in a 1978 federal court lawsuit called the Terry D. case.

Changes are needed, he contends.

“When people think of the Office of Juvenile Affairs, they think of the adult criminal system, especially when they start talking about locking individual rooms,” Christian said. “That's not the case at all.”

Federal lawsuit

The Terry D. case was a federal court lawsuit against the Oklahoma juvenile justice system that alleged correctional practices were abusive, solitary confinement and restraints were being used in an unconstitutional manner, staff members were not properly trained and offenders were improperly being mixed with non-offenders.

As part of the agreement to settle the case, the state agreed that solitary confinement would not be used for punishment in juvenile institutions.

The state also agreed that juveniles could only be locked in their rooms during normal sleeping hours and that otherwise solitary confinement could only be used for emergency situations in which a child was out of control and a serious danger to himself or others. Even then, the child must be released as soon as he regains control, and not more than three hours later.

The Tecumseh juvenile center doesn't have toilets in the sleeping rooms, so juveniles couldn't be locked in those rooms at night even if the rooms had doors and locks, Christian said. During a time of budget cuts, modifying the rooms isn't a consideration, he said.

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