THE DALLES, Ore. – Oregon and Washington kids who are booked into the NORCOR juvenile detention facility in The Dalles are subjected to inhumane conditions, a Disability Rights of Oregon report found.
The report alleges NORCOR neglects kids, places them in solitary confinement for longer than necessary and prevents them from reading, writing, or drawing.
In addition, the jail holds kids far longer than youth detention facilities in Multnomah County, the report found.
NORCOR is a county jail that serves Wasco, Hood River, Gilliam and Sherman counties. It also takes youth in its juvenile detention facility from across eastern Oregon and parts of Washington.
Disability Rights of Oregon visited NORCOR’s juvenile detention facility three times between June and September 2017 and interviewed 23 kids, the detention manager, a current and former teacher at the facility and local school district representatives.
The report found that 236 kids were booked between January and September 2017, who ranged in age from 11 to 17. More than half were held for probation violations, as opposed to serious charges. A quarter of the incarcerated youth were girls. Fifty kids were from Washington state and four were in custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The most egregious of the report's claims involved solitary confinement, which shocked Disability Rights of Oregon investigators because of the kids’ ages.
“When youth are booked at NORCOR, they are placed on 24-hour lockdown without access to phone calls, visits, books, or access to education until they pass a 52-question test regarding 62 rules. During that period, written policy states that the only item that children are allowed access to is the Bible,” the report said.
In addition, some kids were placed in solitary conditions long-term, the report 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. Several reported spending weeks on disciplinary status; deprived of visits with family and phone calls, and required to eat meals, receive education, and exercise alone. Conditions were harsher and more restrictive than any adult jail we had visited, and the kids appeared so young. They were timid and soft-spoken. It was hard to imagine that, as a community, we couldn’t do better for these kids than to lock them alone in sparse cells,” the report said.
The report found that youth stayed at NORCOR far longer than kids at Multnomah County detention facilities. The average stay for all youth at NORCOR was 29 days, as opposed to about 15 days in Multnomah County. Some stayed far longer – one stayed for 187 days after violating a conditional release.
There are not enough other resources and programs available locally for kids in rural areas in Oregon, the report said, which may lead to the overuse of detention. It’s also difficult to find good residential or foster care for kids who have unsafe home situations.
The report cites statistics that show these conditions are not helpful in rehabilitating kids; instead, they create more problems.
The report noted that U.S. Department of Justice research shows kids who are incarcerated and treated like criminals are more likely to be involved in criminal activity in the future. Students with disabilities are more likely to be expelled from school and enter the criminal justice system, according to the Public Policy Research Institute.
Further exacerbating the issue are Oregon’s high youth confinement rates – the second-highest in the U.S., according to the Pew Charitable Trust – and the fact that Oregon juvenile detention facilities are unlicensed and unregulated.
Disability Rights of Oregon called for the jail to immediately employ evidence-based, trauma-informed practices, and called on the state to regulate and license juvenile detention facilities.
NORCOR’s Detention Manager, Jeff Justesen, disputed several conclusions in the Disability Rights of Oregon report. He wrote a letter that details specific issues that NORCOR found in the report, some of which Justesen called inaccurate or over-exaggeration.
“Youth on disciplinary status have contact with detention staff and support staff on a daily basis. Saying youth are denied ‘all’ human contact during periods of discipline is an over-exaggeration and is not accurate,” he wrote.
Justesen said that NORCOR is different from other detention programs because it also houses kids participating in treatment programs, which impacts how long the average youth stays at the facility.
Justesen said the report did highlight several items of concern and the facility has already made changes to some issues. The facility now allows journals and pens in rooms, which are only removed when kids write on walls or themselves. It also stopped banning kids from looking around, looking out of windows, or asking what time it is.
In addition, the facility has stopped implementing the rules test when kids are booked. Justesen said the facility will start showing videos or have staff give presentations instead.
This is not the first claim of inhumane conditions at NORCOR. The jail is also embroiled in a lawsuit alleging that it’s violating Oregon’s sanctuary laws by housing Immigrations and Customs Enforcement detainees. ICE detainees have gone on two hunger strikes this year to protest what they say are inhumane conditions at the jail.
The jail administrator, Bryan Brandenburg, denied the detainee’s claims of inhumane conditions and said the jail meets all standards for detainees set by ICE.