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West Virginia Sued for Dehumanizing Youth

May 1, 2012
Omote Ekwotafia

Last week, Mountain State Justice (MSJ), a non-profit law office, filed a lawsuit against the West Virginia Division of Juvenile Services and the superintendent of the Industrial Home for Youth in Salem, a youth prison, on behalf of its clients, who are currently confined there.

While solitary confinement of youth is illegal in West Virginia, the state's attorneys believe the law may have been violated for years. Dale Humphreys, who directs the Division of Juvenile Services, ordered an end to the practice of solitary confinement when notified of the impending lawsuit.

In the lawsuit, MSJ argues that youth in the prison are subjected to a "regimen of dehumanization and isolation." One of MSJ’s clients claims that during his time in solitary confinement, he was not permitted to go outside or even attend school. Another client alleges he is regularly locked in his cell for over 16 hours a day and subject to random strip searches (sometimes in public) when re-entering his cell from outside or from elsewhere on campus. They also allege that:

  • Youth develop urinary tract infections because they are not allowed to use the bathrooms regularly.
  • Guards monitor conversations between youth and their families, and read communications between youth and their lawyers.

The lawsuit and DJS director's announcement comes shortly after the West Viriginia Supreme Court hired a monitor to oversee the state's juvenile justice facilities. The new monitor, Cindy Largent-Hill, a former director of the West Virginia Division of Juvenile Services, hopes to guide the state's juvenile justice system away from its current punitive focus and towards a rehabilitative one.

Recent research shows that diverting youth into community-based rehabilitation programs is actually more effective than incarceration.

Read NJJN's fact sheet on the ineffectiveness of youth incarceration »


Photo: Marco Scano, under Creative Commons License.

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