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Violence rates high in Ohio youth prisons

| Sunday, Dec. 30, 2012, 8:10 p.m.

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Ohio's youth prisons have much higher assault rates than the adult lockups, a newspaper reported on Sunday.

Juvenile prisons had more than 1,600 assaults in 2011, with an overall population of only 680 youths. The adult population of more than 50,000 inmates had nearly 2,500 assaults.

Assaults include striking another person, throwing at and hitting them with an object, and spitting at or biting.

The Columbus Dispatch reported that some Department of Youth Services staffers say there is not enough discipline in the youth prisons and that conditions are dangerous for the teenagers and the prison staff.

“We have to go in every day wondering if it's going to be safe for us,” said Jonathan Blackford, 35, a corrections officer at the Circle-ville Juvenile Correctional Facility.

A corrections officer at the Scioto Juvenile Correctional Facility was hospitalized in September when three inmates charged into her office and beat her.

The four Ohio youth prisons include the state's most violent juvenile offenders and some young people with mental issues.

“Youth receive consequences for inappropriate behavior,” said Harvey Reed, director of youth services department.

The state spends much more on youth inmates than adults: some $161,497 annually per youth compared with $24,871 on adults, The Dispatch reported. The focus is on rehabilitation and preparation for a productive adult life.

“We want them to go out of the door better than they came in the front door,” Reed said. “We want (staff) to go home and be excited about what they did and how kids change.”

Reed said his administration is addressing staff concerns that young inmates are aggressive because they have little to fear in terms of punishment.

“We've strived to make our facilities safer with (a special program) for use-of-force incidents and holding youth accountable for their behavior, using graduated sanctions that include ‘intervention hearings,' “ Reed said.

In 2008, the state reached agreements in two lawsuits alleging unconstitutional treatment of youth in Ohio prisons.

A monitor's report this month said gangs, sexual misconduct and poorly performing teachers have been problems in some facilities. But monitor Will Harrell praised “hard work” by the Department of Youth Services for improvements.

“In some areas, like reducing the youth population in secure confinement and regionalizing services, Ohio has truly become a model to the nation,” Harrell wrote.

The president of the Juvenile Justice Coalition said the Ohio youth facilities have increased availability of mental health services for the youths.

“They've gotten qualified staff,” said F. Edward Sparks of the group that promotes community-based alternatives to incarceration.

Ohio has dramatically reduced the prison population for juveniles. The number has dropped from nearly 2,000 in 2007, when the state operated seven youth prisons.

Priority is put on placing juvenile offenders in community programs, sending them to prison only as a last resort. But the prison reduction left the most-violent offenders in four prisons.

“We received the worst possible juveniles in the state, and that's what caused an increase in violence,” said Karl Wilkins, a youth specialist at the Scioto juvenile prison.

Wilkins said Scioto received inmates from a facility in Franklin Furnace that was closed in 2011.

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