Officials: 'Drastic' action needed at Wayne County juvenile jail

Wayne County commissioners called for "drastic" and quick action Tuesday to address problems at the county's juvenile jail, where complaints have grown that youths have been deprived of basic care because of low staffing levels.

The concern from commissioners comes just days after the Free Press first reported that the state health department had relaxed staffing and lockdown rules at the Wayne County Juvenile Detention Facility because of persistent staffing problems as it operates under a "temporary disaster" plan.

There have been growing complaints about youths being confined to their rooms, sometimes for days, and getting only sporadic recreation timeand showers, the Free Press investigation found.

Commissioner Irma Clark-Coleman, D-Detroit, said during the Tuesday commission meeting that when she read the Free Press report, she was "astounded."

"You can imagine that as commissioners we are getting calls about treating the youth inhumane," Clark-Coleman said. "That’s something I have never received. But people are really concerned about the way those kids are being treated as I am really concerned about it.

"So I am hopeful, I hope you hear it in my voice. … We’ve got to do something drastic, and we’ve got to do it fast."

Wayne County Executive Warren Evans’ staff have said they are trying to address problems at the jail amid worker shortages nationwide.

Also on Tuesday, Melissa Fernandez, the county's director for Juvenile and Youth Services, told commissioners that part of the problem is the statewide shortage of beds at secure residential facilities where youths can be placed from the jail once they have been ordered by the court into treatment.

"We have a lack of placement in the community, which is impacting our length of stay at the Juvenile Detention Facility," Fernandez said.

She added: "I don’t see any immediate fixes with the state as far as placing the kids immediately and so we are looking at what we can provide internally to provide the therapeutic services."

As of Sept. 12, county officials said there were 140 juveniles being housed at the facility and, of those, nearly half were awaiting residential placements. Officials have said many youths have been waiting months for placements.

At the same time, the juvenile jail has been so understaffed, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services approved the facility's request for a temporary waiver of licensing rules in April and then again in August. The variance, which allows the facility to operate with fewer staff and do extended facility-wide lockdowns, will be reexamined at the end of the month.

Fernandez told commissioners that they want to soon move juveniles to one of the county’s adult jails, the William Dickerson Detention Facility in Hamtramck, as a temporary solution. The facility does not currently house any adult inmates. State officials were still reviewing the proposal as of Tuesday.

"We are making headway and making moves to be able to make that happen immediately," Fernandez said.

Other steps include increasing opportunities for youths to be put on probation and to receive help in the community, rather than being housed at the juvenile jail.

County officials repeatedly refused last week to respond to Free Press questions about allegations that juveniles have been kept in their rooms for days.

The facility's staff told state regulators earlier that they would allow youths out of their rooms for up to one hour a day and offer them daily showers, as a part of the relaxation of rules in April. But three employees, who did not want to be named because they fear reprisals, told the Free Press in separate interviews that juveniles were not always receiving showers and recreation daily and that some had been confined to their rooms for days.

On Tuesday, Fernandez did not directly address allegations of room confinements.

Clark-Coleman asked Fernandez whether, once the juveniles are moved to Dickerson, "would they be able to come out of their rooms and take showers and all those other things that we kind of take for granted?"

"We do have provisions in place now to be able to make those things happen on a daily basis," Fernandez said, adding the juvenile jail has a "new team," including a new deputy director.

"But they haven’t been doing it," Clark-Coleman said.

“We have been doing that and it is documented," Fernandez said. "It’s documented. So one of the things we are doing is when that's happened, it is documented in our daily logs ... and it is … provided to the state of Michigan for review.”

She said the setup at the Dickerson facility is "vastly different than JDF and it will allow more of the services to be provided in the contained unit instead of all over the building as JDF is now."

Last week, Bob Wheaton, a spokesman for the state health department, would not answer whether the state has received complaints that youths have been confined to their rooms for days, but said “any allegations of violations would be investigated by the department.”

Wayne County Commissioner Jonathan Kinloch, D-Detroit, said it was "devastating" to read about the conditions at the juvenile jail.

“It has to be a priority,” Kinloch said.

He added: “These are children no matter what circumstances brought them into our care.”

Wayne County Circuit Court Chief Judge Timothy Kenny told the commission Tuesday that the court already works hard with community partners to keep nonviolent youths out of the facility, but is making extra effort to see whether any other youths can be safely released.

"We’ve asked all the juvenile judges to take a second look at the bonds that have been set on all of the delinquency cases that are on their docket to determine whether or not on a second look maybe someone could be back in the community even with some sort of restriction," Kenny said.

Kenny called on the state to do more to make more secure beds available so that teens aren't languishing for months at the facility.

“If everything is stuck in neutral, they are not getting any better," Kenny said. "Probably some of them are getting worse. And so I think it really is a very urgent issue that in my view the state needs to take action.”

State officials have said they have allocated more money in the state’s most recent budget to facilities to increase hiring, including plans to provide $25 million of one-time pandemic relief to increase beds at child caring institutions.

Contact Christine MacDonald: cmacdonald@freepress.com or 313-418-2149. Follow her on Twitter: @cmacfreep. Contact Gina Kaufman: gkaufman@freepress.com Follow her on Twitter: @ReporterGina.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Wayne County juvenile jail needs 'drastic' action to solve problems