Kids held at the NORCOR juvenile detention center in The Dalles endure psychologically harmful conditions, according to a new report from Disability Rights Oregon.
The six-month study looked at the conditions for two dozen kids being held for crimes as varied as probation violations to murder.
Disability Rights Oregon attorney Sarah Radcliffe talked with 23 kids; some told her they face frequent, prolonged and undocumented isolation.
“NORCOR deprives kids of human contact and the tools for healthy human development. Kids as young as 12 were locked in their cells for hours at a time and weren’t allowed to read, write or draw,” Radcliffe said. “They were isolated and had no one to talk to. They weren’t allowed to look out of windows or to ask what time it was.”
The Disability Rights study found the children reported spending three to six hours a day locked in their cells. Those who were suicidal or experiencing mental health problems were denied human contact.
The study also found that NORCOR does not maintain records documenting when youth are confined, as required by Oregon law.
Ajit Jetmalani, the director of child and adolescent psychiatry at Oregon Health and Science University, said the NORCOR juvenile detention facility "appears to be unaware of the neuroscience of adolescent development.”
Studies of human development emphasize the importance of attachment and sustained positive relationships for juveniles.
“This 30 to 60 day period of these young peoples' lives should be seen as an opportunity to right the ship, engage family and community and offer interpersonal, educational, vocational and health care,” Jetmalani said. “That is much less expensive and much more effective than warehousing and traumatically isolating already vulnerable youth."
The vast majority of youth in the juvenile justice system have a mental illness and significant histories of trauma.
Bryan Brandenburg, who manages NORCOR, says the report contains inaccuracies.
“They basically are making a statement that there are inhuman conditions at NORCOR, and I believe and we feel that that’s an overstated and exaggerated depiction," he said. “We certainly try to provide exactly the opposite of punishment. Punishment is designed to hurt or punish. Whereas discipline, which is what we have as part of our program, is designed to teach. And so we spend a lot of time trying to teach appropriate behavior to these kids who are housed here.”
That said, NORCOR is making changes as a result of the report including: allowing journals and safety flex pens in rooms, ending rules against looking around and asking the time. Visits also will no longer be suspended during disciplinary actions.
“Too many kids are incarcerated at NORCOR, they stay there too long, and conditions of confinement appear designed to punish instead of teach life skills,” Radcliffe said.
Youth incarceration rates across the country have dropped 50 percent over the last decade.
In comparison, Oregon’s rates have dropped 9 percent. Oregon has one of the highest youth incarceration rates in the country.
Disability Rights Oregon is calling for NORCOR to implement the recommendations of the 2016 Oregon State Court Juvenile Justice Mental Health Task Force. Those recommendations include a commitment to evidence-based, trauma-informed practices.
Brandenburg said they will be adopting some of those.
“We need to have a process for documenting any disciplinary access. And we need to have a process for kids to grieve anything that they chose to about the program," he said. "And also a process to appeal any disciplinary sanctions. So those are in the works and should be implemented within the next several months.”