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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
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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.

Manpower intensive

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.

Separation advised

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.”

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