THE DALLES — Disability Rights Oregon alleged in a new report that the juvenile jail in The Dalles skirts Oregon law and uses inhumane methods to punish youth, a newspaper reported Wednesday.
The director of the Northern Oregon Regional Correctional Facility disputed the findings reported in The East Oregonian but said there is room for improvement at the facility that takes in juveniles from 17 Oregon counties, some southwest Washington counties and federal immigration cases. The facility also houses some teens from the Warm Springs Indian Reservation.
Disability Rights is authorized to inspect jails and other facilities that house people with disabilities under a federal designation. In the report, organization attorney Sarah Radcliffe said she interviewed 23 youth at the NORCOR juvenile jail during three visits between June and September. The teens told her about long stays in isolation for minor infractions and most reported spending between three and six hours per day locked in their cells, the report said.
“I was just really shocked by the conditions,” she said. “Kids are getting disciplined for normal behavior, and some for mental health-related behavior.”
Offenders as young as 12 faced discipline for talking in line or not looking forward, according to the report. Youth could spend weeks “on disciplinary status,” according to Radcliffe, in which they cannot participate in any group activities, must eat alone, receive solitary education in their housing unit and cannot have phone calls or visits from family.
Radcliffe called NORCOR’s disciplinary process “regressive and aggressive.”
NORCOR also does not document how long youth remain in isolation, a violation of Oregon law.
Dr. Ajit Jetmalani, the director of child and adolescent psychiatry at Oregon Health and Science University and a member of the statewide juvenile justice mental health task force, said in the report the NORCOR juvenile detention facility “appears to be unaware of the neuroscience of adolescent development” that shows “the critical importance of attachment and sustained positive relationships” for juveniles.
“The key to recovery for these kids is not enforcing strict compliance with rules, but rather in forming healthy relationships that help to foster an intrinsic desire to engage positively with the world,” he said.
NORCOR Director Bryan Brandenburg disputed much of Radcliffe’s report.
“We really are about teaching kids better behavior,” he said. “We certainly don’t punish, as she said in her report, nor do we treat them inhumanely.”
Staff do isolate teens who are disruptive or who break rules by locking them in their cells. But staff and mental health workers regularly check on youth in segregation, he said.
Rules against looking around or looking out of windows during class had been done away with after Radcliffe’s report. The facility will also do a better job of documenting how long youth are in isolation, Brandenburg said, and is working on a grievance and appeals processes for youth who get into trouble.
Oregon law requires juvenile jails to offer a hearing prior to imposing “roomlock” in excess of 12 hours or denial of any privilege in excess of one day.
Inmates in Oregon’s state prisons can file complaints against staff and file appeals for discipline, Brandenburg said, and youth in NORCOR should have those same rights.
“We are in the service business, so we will look at those recommendations we see as legitimate and valid and make an effort to address them,” he said.