Saturday, August 14, 2004

Juvenile prison reforms outlined

Scioto accused of allowing abuse, mistreatment

By Dan Horn
Enquirer staff writer

The Ohio Department of Youth Services sent an "action plan" to Gov. Bob Taft Friday that outlined how it intends to fix problems at juvenile prisons in Scioto and Circleville. Some of the recommendations:

• Ensure that newly hired social workers hold a license and/or accreditation. Licenses are not required of all current employees.
• Organize "treatment teams" of teachers, social workers and others to address the specific needs of every youth.
• Hire an independent law firm to provide lawyers to assist inmates with appeals, grievances and other legal issues.
• Build a separate prison for girls. Currently, the girls are housed in separate units at Scioto, which also houses boys.
• Require guards to walk more rounds so they can keep a better watch on sex offenders housed in Circleville.
• Expand the number of boys' living units so sex offenders can be placed in single rooms.

Read the plan

Top officials at the Ohio Department of Youth Services sent a multimillion-dollar "action plan" to Gov. Bob Taft Friday, explaining how they intend to eliminate abuse, lax supervision and other problems at the state's juvenile facilities.

The plan focuses on the state's only juvenile prison for girls, the Scioto Juvenile Correctional Facility, and on the sexual offender program at the Circleville Juvenile Correctional Facility.

Taft asked the agency to submit the plan in response to allegations of sexual assaults by guards and inmates, beatings, improper medical care and inadequate legal services at the facilities.

Youth services officials are seeking money for a new prison for girls and for an expansion of existing boys' units so sex offenders can be placed in single cells, rather than in cells with other offenders.

The plan also calls for the elimination of physical restraint techniques that injured some girls, and for the hiring of new social workers, psychologists and a full-time lawyer to help inmates with legal complaints.

"The goal is to correct the deficiencies," said Andrea Kruse, spokeswoman for youth services. "We're taking them very seriously."

Although the plan does not yet have a price tag, the changes won't come cheap. The new facility alone would cost about $30 million.

"We're going to need some help from the legislature to make this happen," Kruse said. "There will be a nice-sized bill associated with it."

Making room in the budget could prove difficult. Last month, Taft ordered most state agencies to cut spending by 6 percent to cover a $118 million shortfall. Over the past five years, Ohio has cut spending by $1.3 billion.

"We have a tough budget, but we always keep unique circumstances in mind," said Orest Holubec, Taft's spokesman. "We'll work with them to make sure the goal is met."

Youth services officials say they already have made some changes, such as ending mandatory overtime for guards, hiring a new deputy superintendent for the girls' facility and training staff to deal with mentally ill inmates.

Youth Services Director Geno Natalucci-Persichetti said the agency soon will create two new high-ranking positions.

One would be a youth advocate who would ensure that inmates understand how to file grievances, and a compliance administrator to monitor "the quality of life and life safety issues at all of the facilities."

"While we have been vigilant and have taken steps to correct the problems, we realize that more needs to be done," Natalucci-Persichetti said in a letter he sent to Taft with the action plan.

He said youth services officials have acted quickly when problems were brought to their attention and have, when necessary, fired employees.

But critics of the agency complain that officials have ignored serious problems for years.

A Covington-based child advocacy group, the Children's Law Center, said in a lawsuit filed last month that youth services officials ignored repeated complaints about the lack of legal services for juvenile inmates.

Youth services began examining its policies after media reports of crowding and lax supervision at Circleville and after independent investigations found allegations of sexual assaults by guards and other problems at Scioto.


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