Sunday, August 1, 2004

Juvenile inmate abuse unconscionable


The abuse of teenage inmates at Ohio's only juvenile prison for girls is inexcusable. After outside investigators complained, Ohio Department of Youth Services corrected some conditions of an almost Dickensian nature at Scioto Juvenile Correctional Facility and fired about a dozen workers, but more systemic reform is needed, and fast.

Only strong leadership can keep inmates and guards in line at any prison, as Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad proved. At juvenile prisons, authorities need to be extra protective and quick to react to allegations of abuse. Although Scioto was the site of scandal probes in the early and late 1990s, this fall officials were slow to react to fresh complaints. Two independent investigators found evidence of sexual and physical assaults. Girls were denied access to medical and legal help. Scioto should root out abusive guards and review support staff from top to bottom. Use of male guards to oversee girl inmates deserves intense scrutiny.

Four Scioto girls Thursday filed a federal lawsuit accusing the Department of Youth Services with denying them access to lawyers after physical or sexual assaults by guards. The Children's Law Center in Covington conducted the original probe last fall and now filed the suit on the girls' behalf. The plaintiffs range in age from 13 to 17. Two are from Hamilton County.

A 16-year-old said a guard sexually assaulted her in her room last year. That guard was convicted of sexual battery and given only six months in prison. He also was convicted of attempted sexual battery against another girl at Scioto. Other girls complained of broken arms and excessive force. One with a broken foot wasn't taken to a doctor for six months.

Girls at Scioto aren't angels. Their crimes range from theft to murder. But they are there to be rehabilitated, not victimized. Ohio did hire juvenile justice expert Fred Cohen to investigate, and hired a new superintendent who now allows the girls to talk at meals and walk without their hands behind their backs. Wrist grips and restraints never intended for use on juveniles are finally banned.

Cohen was shocked at Scioto's "militaristic bent." The prison still needs to upgrade access to mental health care and legal counsel. Reforms need to be permanently built into the system, to break the cycle of abuse and scandals at Scioto.

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