In the past, this blog has mentioned the problems facing West Virginia’s system of incarceration, both for adults and for juveniles. A study published in 2010 by the National Juvenile Defender Center found that the juvenile court system in this state suffers from “a general malaise.” Public defenders were overwhelmed and failed to do proper due diligence, with the result being that juveniles served lengthy sentences for fairly minor crimes.
In 2011, the West Virginia Supreme Court responded by establishing a commission with the purpose of reviewing Division of Juvenile Service operations and programs at various juvenile facilities. The supreme court stated that it was committed to a juvenile justice system that had both effective interventions and enhanced the possibility of rehabilitation. As a result of the findings in one report and other legal actions, one juvenile facility, Industrial Home, is set to close.
Besides investigating the general conditions of Industrial Home, the commission was tasked with investigating the mysterious death of one of its juvenile residents. The resident’s heart “stopped beating” at some point after dinner, when he was back in his cell. A previous coroner’s report found that there was no foul play or self injury. In its March 2013 news release, the commission stated that the juvenile’s cause of death could not be determined, but that it was clear that the staff had not followed proper procedures. In addition to the death, the commission investigated reports of physical assault and sexual acts between the staff and juveniles at Industrial Home.
The commission also reported the following “concerning” findings. Psychiatric services were not provided in person, but rather through a video conference. Juvenile residents were given flat sentences rather than sentences appropriate to their offenses. Their windows were covered by black paper and they were controlled by lock down. Residents were given little access to their attorneys during their period in the residential facility. Their quality of life was also quite dismal: poor quality and quantity of food, limited showers, cold cells, and thin blankets. Finally, there was no gender-specific instruction in the female residence.
Some changes were made once these problems were brought to the staff’s attention. The black paper was removed and more gender-specific staff and programming were added for the female inmates. Activities to boost the juveniles’ morale were added, such as intramural sports and talent shows. However, it was not enough to quell the numerous concerning issues that arose. After the commission brought the report to Governor Tomblin, Mountain State Justice filed a writ of habeas corpus petition on behalf of two of the residents. They claimed that juveniles were confined to their cells for long periods of time, that shower and bathroom breaks were at the staff’s discretion, that the juveniles needed to wear prison uniforms, and that they were kept from their families. The Division of Juvenile Services finally announced that Industrial Home would close and the 300 inmates would be moved to other facilities.
The commission reports will play an important role in ensuring that West Virginia’s juvenile detention residents are treated fairly. It also underscores the importance of always having a West Virginia criminal defense attorney in your corner who will fight for juveniles’ rights, including the right to avoid cruel and unusual punishment.