Report: Ohio youth prisons improved, but need work

ANDREW WELSH-HUGGINS AP Legal Affairs Writer Published:

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) -- Some changes to Ohio's youth prison system are a model for the nation, an annual report on the system concluded, while highlighting continuing problems in the system with gang violence, education classes and medical care.

Department of Youth Services administrators have done commendable work reducing the number of offenders in secure confinement and spreading services for youthful offenders around Ohio, according to the report released earlier this month by a court-appointed monitor.

"I take great pride in the work we have done together to improve conditions in Ohio's juvenile correctional facilities," Will Harrell, monitor of an agreement between the state and youth advocates who sued over conditions in the system, wrote in the report.

But he also noted "ongoing deficiencies" that must still be addressed.

The Indian River Juvenile Correctional Facility in Massillon, for example, still has too many incidents of violence, Harrell said.

"Changes in programs, youth population, and the addition of the Mental Health Units have resulted in fluctuations in violence reflected through assaults, fights, physical restraints, and incidents of seclusion," the report said.

"Youth gangs still exert a powerful negative influence at Indian River, and concerns remain about the high rate of fights and physical restraints," it said.

Teacher absences contributed to a number of cancelled classes at Indian River and the Scioto Juvenile Correctional Facility in Delaware, the report said, and some teachers aren't getting the job done.

At Scioto, "some staff demonstrated an inability to effectively maintain order, and youth in several classrooms slept, walked around, or engaged in conversations unrelated to school," the report said.

The report found problems with medical files at all four state facilities, and said records aren't always accessible to everyone trying to create treatment programs for youth.

In addition, psychiatric services and hours at all the prisons are inadequate and a disproportionate number of black inmates aren't placed on mental health units, the report said.

Six years ago, the state settled a 2004 lawsuit that alleged a culture of violence permeated the youth prisons system. That settlement called for ongoing review of the state's progress in making changes that have been agreed upon.

The state says the agency is a different organization today and that the agreement should be concluded given the amount of progress that has been made.

"We are carrying out our mission of improving Ohio's future by habilitating youth and empowering families and communities," Youth Prisons spokeswoman Kim Parsell said in a statement.

She noted the agency is almost finished complying with 1,000 goals and objectives that both sides agreed upon.

Lawyers for youth inmates note the recent report found possible violations of inmates' federal rights in 44 separate areas.

These advocates also say the proposal to end the agreement comes when possible budget cuts to Youth Prisons could "put a severe strain on its ability to achieve constitutional compliance."

One of the agency's biggest successes -- reducing the number of youths held by the state -- is also a continuing source of its problems. With many youthful offenders now housed in county facilities close to their families, the state holds only the most violent offenders, who are also the oldest and often hardest to rehabilitate.

From more than 2,000 juvenile inmates at one time, Ohio now houses about 600.

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Andrew Welsh-Huggins can be reached on Twitter at https://twitter.com/awhcolumbus.

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