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.
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.”
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.
The Terry D. settlement also prohibits use of mechanical restraints, except for hand restraints, and those can only be used when moving a child who is a serious escape risk or threat to the public or when moving a violently out-of-control child to a place of confinement within an institution.
The ultimate impact of the rules and building limitations is that when a fight breaks out or a child becomes violent, staff members must jump into the fray, wrap them up in “more or less a bear hug” and then take the child to the ground, Christian said.
If the child stops struggling, he must immediately be released. Sometimes the procedure has to be repeated several times, Christian said.
Christian argues that the facilities and Terry D. settlement were designed to handle children who were 10 to 13 years old, and now the system is dealing with a number of violent youthful offenders who are 15 to 18 years old.
“We're using rules involving orphanage youth in our juvenile facilities,” Christian complained. “That's where we're running into major issues.”
Children and employees are getting injured, he said.
“We throw people in their face instead of bars or a door, and the sad thing is that drives our workers' comp costs up because our employees get injured or harmed,” he said.
The system is very manpower intensive, requiring juvenile centers to maintain staffing ratios of 1 to 10 during the daytime and 1 to 12 at night, Christian said. That drives up costs.
It was costing more than $250 a day to house and provide programs for the juveniles at the Rader Center, which was one of the primary reasons the Legislature wanted to close it, he said. Several violent incidents at Rader also were an issue.
“We would argue that there are better ways of doing it,” Christian said, contending the Terry D. decision was “meant for a different population and meant for a different time, but it's still in place.”
Given the realities of the state budget, which currently makes building a new high-security juvenile center unlikely, Christian said he believes serious consideration should be given to isolating a section of an adult jail, like the Tulsa jail, and staffing it with juvenile staff members and juvenile programs to handle violent older youth.
Steele said this past session the Legislature passed a law authorizing the Office of Juvenile Affairs to add maximum-security space within existing detention centers.
“The problem is, to my knowledge, we did not attach funding,” he said.
The Office of Juvenile Affairs also recently was granted authority to use pepper spray, and if it ever gets a center for the sole use of youthful offenders, it could also use Tasers there, Christian said. There is talk about obtaining special protective clothing for some security staff, he said.
Steven Novick, one of the attorneys who sued the state in the Terry D. lawsuit, said older youthful offenders “probably do need to be separated from the younger kids and probably do need to have different kinds of rehabilitation programs.”
However, he cautioned strongly against returning to the old ways of handling juveniles.
“I don't think the old tie-them-up-and-lock-them-up mentality (works),” he said.
“If you take juvenile delinquents and you treat them roughly, and you tie them up and lock them up, what comes out the other end is just more fodder for the adult criminal system. We just can't afford that.”
During his work on the Terry D. lawsuit, Novick said he discovered that a lot of the violent acts by juveniles were provoked or escalated by staff.
Novick questioned the logic that greater use of restraints or solitary confinement would lessen violence, saying that trying to put a child in leg shackles or a lock up generally requires a violent confrontation.
While staff members may describe those confrontations in terms like “bear hugs” and “take- downs,” kids described them differently, he said.
“In real life, they grabbed the kids and slammed them to the floor,” Novick said. “Ask the kids what they call it, and they all call it getting slammed.”
“I believe the primary answer to inadequate security among the kids lies in adequate numbers of well-trained staff and not tying them up and locking them up,” he said.
“There's an expense associated with that, but I think that has a proven track record of being more effective ... The more you lock kids up, the more violent they become.”
Steele said the extent to which force and restraints should be allowed in dealing with juveniles “isn't something the Legislature takes lightly.”
“It's absolutely something that needs to be discussed,” he said.
“Personally, I don't think the discussion can occur soon enough.”