OPEA Works to Protect OJA Employee Safety

After two riots on consecutive weekends at the Central Oklahoma Juvenile Center and rising concerns about the safety of employees, residents and the public, the Board of the Office of Juvenile Affairs held an emergency meeting September 29. The dangerous conditions at COJC have erupted after the agency closed the Rader Center, which was the only maximum secure facility in the juvenile system.

OPEA met with employees at COJC and prepared a statement about facility conditions and the Rader center closing. While the Board was not allowing public comments, OPEA presented a written statement.

“At the June meeting, OPEA addressed the Board and presented a letter stating employee concerns with the Rader Center closing and asked that the Board postpone the closing until the issues could be addressed,” the statement read. “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.” (To read the letter OPEA sent to the OJA Board and the Department of Justice in May click here.)

“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,” the OPEA statement continued. “According to newspaper reports, the Tecumseh police have been called out to quell riots at the facility twice in one week, the same number of interventions as in the past 16 years. COJC is a facility in crisis, with both residents and employees concerned for their safety.”

In the meeting, OJA Director Gene Christian discussed the options of securing the remaining OJA facilities including; seeking changes in the Terry D consent decree that restrict the use of restraints, allowing pepper spray and tasers, using armed officers, and capital improvements for more secure rooms. OPEA had discussed the alternatives with workers at COJC and made the following recommendations.

We have visited with the staff and they are adamant that OJA personnel should not carry firearms. In Oklahoma’s adult corrections facilities, only tower, central control and perimeter officers carry firearms. The juvenile facilities are not designed as prisons. Staff, or contracted officers, with firearms would not be isolated from the juveniles, risking a gun falling into the hands of a juvenile.

In addition, the staff recommends that any employee who uses pepper spray or a taser 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. The special equipment should be locked up and used only when authorized by the unit manager. 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. Of 41 security staff, only 22 are working, because of injuries and open positions. The facility also has youth guidance positions vacant. Using some of the savings from the Rader Center closing to hire and train more staff, would contribute to security and help return COJC to a safe environment. One staff member told us, ‘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.

In his comments to the Board, Director Christian commended OPEA’s statement and recommendation from COJC staff. Also, as part of his recommendations to the Board, he included a three percent pay increase for line staff and intensive efforts to hire more staff at COJC.

“We are pleased that Director Christian is recommending additional pay for staff, more employees at COJC, and capital improvements to provide locked rooms,” concluded Zearley. “In the coming weeks, OPEA will be working with Director Christian to improve the conditions for all employees and residents in the juvenile system.”

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