OPEA has been working with employees and Office of Juvenile Affairs Board and staff to improve the conditions at the Central Oklahoma Juvenile Center (COJC) in Tecumseh. Since the closure of the Rader Center, more violent and troubled youth have been transferred to COJC, resulting in disturbances at the center.
At the June meeting, OPEA addressed the Board of Juvenile Affairs stating employee concerns with the Rader Center closing and asking that the Board postpone the closing until the issues could be addressed. Rader Center employees were concerned that closing the only secure beds in the juvenile system and moving seriously troubled youth, who require more security and intensive treatment into medium secure facilities would put the employees, juveniles and the public at risk.
“While OPEA does not agree with the Rader Center decision, we must work together to improve the living conditions for the residents and working environment for the employees at the remaining facilities,” said OPEA Executive Director Sterling Zearley in a September 29 statement to the Board. “COJC is a facility in crisis, with both residents and employees concerned for their safety.”
After meeting with COJC employees about their concerns, OPEA Policy and Communications Director Trish Frazier made preliminary recommendations to the OJA Board at their fall retreat. On the Board agenda for the retreat were several discussion items relating to the security of the remaining facilities.
OPEA’s recommendations were as follows:
Firearms should not be carried on the campuses of OJA facilities, by agency or contract officers. Corrections facilities do not allow firearms within institutions because of the danger that the gun could be taken from officers and turned on staff. However, DOC does allow firearms in towers and on the perimeter.
Any employee who uses pepper spray or a taser should be part of a specially trained crisis team of two security officers for each shift. The team would also include two experienced youth guidance specialists. According to long-term staff, a similar group called the CLS team was used in the past. A team of facility employees are more effective in calming juveniles, because they are more likely to have a relationship them.
COJC is extremely short staffed, causing workers and juveniles to feel unsafe in their environment. In late September, of 41 security staff, only 22 are working, because of injuries and open positions. The facility also has youth guidance positions vacant. OPEA recommends using some of the savings from the Rader Center closing to double fill positions on workers comp or military leave. One staff member told OPEA, ‘We are wearing too many hats.’ Counselors must help with security, jeopardizing their therapeutic relationship with the clients and taking time from working on behavior issues and rehabilitation.
The Terry D. consent decree should be renegotiated to allow for seclusion of violent youth beyond three hours. In addition, staff should be allowed to restrain the feet of juveniles who are a threat to residents or staff.
Capitol improvements should be made to COJC to provide more secure rooms for violent youth and sex offenders.
Juveniles who assault staff should be immediately removed from the facility. This would require the agency to contract with additional counties for detention beds.
The Board approved a three percent pay increase for institutional and field employees. However, OPEA agrees with Chairman T. Hastings Siegfried that some of the funds in the budget proposal to restore contract rates cut during the shortfall should be used to raise pay for agency employees. OPEA recommends that the hiring rate be increased by three percent in positions with recruitment challenges and current employees be provided with a five percent increase.
On Wednesday, October 19, OPEA met with COJC employees to discuss additional recommendations. Direct care staff requested rotation of employees assigned to suicide prevention and clients requiring one-on-one staffing due to mental health issues. Clients with severe mental health challenges should be moved to another facility with mental health professionals equipped to handle special needs.
In the coming weeks, OJA Director Christian will be meeting with OPEA and COJC staff to discuss the progress of improvements at the facility.