Look out a window? You could be punished. Ask what time it is? You could be punished. Is your hand above your waist? Yup, punished.
Such is life for kids locked behind bars at the Northern Oregon Regional Correctional Facility (NORCOR), according to a new report from a Portland advocacy group.
Months after taking heat from civil rights advocates for keeping detainees of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in allegedly terrible conditions, The Dalles-based jail is under fire this week from Disability Rights Oregon (DRO)—a federally-appointed monitor for Oregonians with disabilities—for what DRO says is “inhumane” treatment of children and teens incarcerated at the facility.
“It’s a bleak existence for kids who are so young,” says DRO attorney Sarah Radcliffe, who wrote the report. Radcliffe also authored the damning report released earlier this year about conditions for mentally ill inmates in Multnomah County. “NORCOR is stuck in a 1990s, tough-on-crime approach that we know with youth is counterproductive.”
The new report—released on Tuesday and based on an investigation conducted in the spring—details extreme punishment for breaking arbitrary rules, widespread use of solitary confinement, isolation from family members, neglect, poor record-keeping, and inferior schooling for youth inmates, many of whom are there for simple probation violations.
Oregon has the ninth worst youth mental health system in the country according to the group Mental Health America, and the second-highest youth incarceration rate according to the Pew Charitable Trust.
“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 writes in the scathing assessment. “It’s a system bent on producing compliant inmates, rather than rehabilitating kids to become contributing members of our communities.”
Jail officials, however, call much of DRO’s report “over-sensationalized” and, in some cases, flat-out wrong. DRO is making sweeping conclusions based on small sample sizes and false statements from child detainees, NORCOR Juvenile Detention Manager Jeff Justesen tells the Mercury.
“We feel overall the report is over-exaggerated and inaccurate, and it seems to be part of a bigger statewide agenda that’s just focused on us,” Justesen says.
The jail, about 80 miles east of downtown Portland, houses roughly 24 juvenile inmates at any time, DRO says. Inmates hail from 17 Oregon counties, several Washington counties, the Warm Springs Reservation, and wherever ICE gets its detainees| Most of NORCOR’s incarcerated kids are between 14 and 17, but in 2017 an 11-year-old, four 12-year-olds, and 15 13-year-olds were locked up there.
Those kids are already facing steep challenges. Up to 70 percent of juvenile inmates at NORCOR meet the criteria for a “mental health diagnosis,” reports the Oregon Youth Development Council. Radcliffe writes that NORCOR policies make their conditions worse, creating a “vicious cycle.”
“Behavior that is symptomatic of mental health crisis and trauma is perceived as noncompliance and triggers a disciplinary response and placement in even more counter therapeutic conditions,” Radcliffe writes.
The DRO report documents several cases when the jail used arbitrary reasons to put kids on a “special sanction program”—meaning no visitors, no books other than the Bible, and no interaction with other kids. Among them:
•“Eli” was punished for having a non-Bible book in his cell. He remained in relative isolation for 69 days, DRO says, because the jail reported he was “needy” (“noted multiple times with no detail provided”), “passive aggressive,” sought attention, put his feet on a stool, was “telling other youth what the rules are,” held his hands above his waist, and looked around.
•“Brandy” was punished “for things like falling asleep, using a clean piece of tissue as a bookmark, or leaving orange seeds on her floor.” She was further penalized for being “needy,” “doing the minimum,” “doing just okay,” flirting, “hands above waist,” and not saying “excuse me” to corrections staffers.
Many of the kids at NORCOR have endured some sort of trauma earlier in their lives, the report says. It quotes Dr. Ajit Jetmalani, director of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Oregon Health and Science University, who writes: “Youth with traumatic backgrounds may process information differently and react unpredictably to their perceptions of potential threat and abandonment. This hypervigilance is protective and can be misunderstood as ‘defiance or noncompliance’ by inadequately trained caregivers or juvenile staff. This can create a cycle of interpersonal disengagement, distrust, and behavioral escalation.”
Justesen says juvenile inmates are not treated as harshly as the report suggests. He says juvenile inmates are allowed more phone calls and visits than what is implied, adding, “Some of the over-dramatization of things leads to a really negative tone in the report.” Last week, Justesen sent a four-page letter disputing some of the study’s major claims (read that letter below).
NORCOR has been in the news this year for its role in locking up undocumented immigrants. The facility stays financially afloat thanks to a contract with ICE to house those going through deportation proceedings, OPB reports. It’s one of two jails in Oregon to hold ICE detainees.
ICE detainees at the facility went on a hunger strike this fall to protest conditions. And in September, the ACLU of Oregon threatened to sue NORCOR for potentially violating immigrant detainees’ constitutional rights. The organization accuses the jail of limiting access to attorneys, providing poor medical care and food, denying religious liberty, refusing visitors, and keeping inmates in unsanitary conditions.
Along with releasing its report this week, DRO is hoping to pressure the state legislature to make sure youth jails are licensed and regulated by the state, among other reforms. It’s also hosting a book drive for kids locked up at NORCOR so they have something to read besides the Bible.
The jail has made some changes since DRO intervened. Kids are now allowed journals and flexible pens in their cells, and they can ask what time it is. Management also recently got rid of the bizarre rule against looking around.
“With appropriate resources, youth can address the behavior that led them to detention and become happy, healthy members of our community,” DRO says. “These kids should not be in jail; and they should not be in a jail that needlessly re-traumatizes them.”
The DRO report on NORCOR:
The NORCOR response to DRO (sent before the final DRO report was released):