Wasco County Board of Commissioners is demanding swift action after a report claims the juvenile jail in The Dalles mistreats youth.
Wasco County commissioners Rod Runyon, Scott Hege and Steve Kramer each signed a letter Wednesday urging the board of directors for the Northern Oregon Regional Correctional Facility to immediately convene an emergency meeting to discuss the 37-page report from Disability Rights Oregon and to hand over control and administration of the juvenile detention facility to an oversight committee.
Sarah Radcliffe, attorney for Disability Rights Oregon, created the report, “Don’t Look Around: A Window into Inhumane Conditions for Youth at NORCOR,” based on visits to the juvenile jail and interviews with 23 youth. She found the facility often shut youth in cells for hours at a time, and jail staff disciplined youth as young as 12 for talking while in line or looking anywhere but straight ahead.
Juvenile inmates on “disciplinary status” were subjected to weeks of isolation, according to the report, cut off from phone calls and visits. They ate alone and could not participate in education with their peers.
Getting off disciplinary status depended on earning passing marks on scorecards that staff filled out each shift. Radcliffe found there was no set number for how many shifts youth must pass.
Wasco County further demanded an independent investigation to dig into the report’s findings and recommendations, and commissioners told NORCOR the county will “immediately redirect any youth in NORCOR custody to a different facility” pending resolution of the report.
NORCOR director Byran Brandenburg has said juveniles at the jail do not suffer inhumane treatment, and he criticized the report for inaccuracies and exaggerations. However, Brandenburg said that NORCOR has changed several practices in the wake of the report that went public Tuesday morning, including allowing students to have pens and journals in their cells and allowing students on disciplinary status to have calls and visitors.
He also said the facility did away with “silly rules” that prohibited youth from looking around or asking what time it was.
The counties of Wasco, Hood River, Sherman, and Gilliam teamed up to create NORCOR in The Dalles. The jail holds 100 to 130 adults and 20-24 youth. NORCOR holds contracts with 17 counties and the Warm Springs Reservation for youth detention, along with counties in Washington and federal immigration detainees.
Umatilla and Morrow counties are part of that mix.
Morrow County Administrator Darrell Green did not return a call Thursday, but Umatilla County Commissioner Bill Elfering said “if Wasco County is taking that kind of action, we have to look into this.”
Umatilla County does not have a juvenile jail, so it uses NORCOR and sometimes the Walla Walla County Jail to hold youth offenders and defendants. Elfering said it would require board action to not keep juveniles from NORCOR, but before making any decisions the county board needed to know more. He said a “knee-jerk reaction would be wrong” and called for fact-gathering to sort out the accuracy of the findings, “but it sounded like some of it fell on fertile ground.”
Alice Lundell, director of communication for the nonprofit Oregon Justice Resource Center, Portland, said in a written statement that the “investigation into conditions at NORCOR for young people reveals a system of confinement that is at odds with established developmental science demonstrating that the ‘compliance at all costs’ approach of NORCOR as depicted in DRO’s report is deeply counterproductive.”
The center also supported Disability Rights’ recommendations, which include licensing and regulation of Oregon’s juvenile facilities, ending solitary confinement for youth and guarantee appropriate education for all students in the jail.
“The conditions described in the report should shame Oregonians and should prompt major change,” said Lundell.
Wasco County commissioners in their letter stated they hoped their actions “serve as the catalyst to start a meaningful discussion concerning NORCOR,” and the county “remains ready to assist in resolving the issues.”