Committee on Public Safety & the Judiciary, Performance Oversight Hearing on the Department of Corrections

Testimony of R. Daniel Okonkwo, Executive Director

Good afternoon Chairman Wells. My name is Daniel Okonkwo and I am the Executive Director of DC Lawyers for Youth. Thank you for the opportunity to testify before your Committee today.  I am here today to raise some concerns concerning the conditions of confinement in the juvenile unit at the Correctional Treatment Facility (CTF).

Thank you Councilmember Wells for taking an interest in the population of young people who are charged as adults and held both pre and post trial in the adult jail. I am grateful that you made time to visit the Title 16 unit at CTF and were able to see first hand the conditions our young people experience during their confinement there.

For the last few years, DCLY had requested that an independent evaluation be performed to examine the conditions of confinement for young people housed at CTF.  We are pleased that such an evaluation was finally conducted last year and the Ridley Group has written a report on these conditions. [1]   I commend the Ridley Group for their work on the report as well as DOC for the changes it has stated will be implemented to the unit as a result of the report.  Both are a good start.  While I do think DOC is committed to improving conditions at the Title 16 unit, I think the Ridley Group report reveals that even improving the programming at the Title 16 unit will never make charging youth as adults and placing them in an adult jail an appropriate option for youth for three main reasons: 1) the physical plant space is inappropriate for youth and can never be made appropriate for youth because of the size, physical layout, and sight and sound restrictions associated with the fact that its an adult jail: 2) the lack of meaningful, robust, and developmentally appropriate rehabilitative and reentry services; and 3) the psychological impact on youth who are tried as adults (something not really touched upon by the Ridley Group report).  

Youth in Solitary Confinement

DCLY also remains concerned with the use of isolation or solitary confinement at CTF.  Research has consistently demonstrated the long-term negative effects of solitary confinement,[2] especially for youth.[3]  DOC states that it has a policy that youth are placed in solitary confinement for no more than five days.[4]  However, the Ridley Group report indicated, and we heard firsthand from staff on our visit, that a number of youth had been in isolation for longer than five days, because at the end of five days DOC had reviewed their case and imposed another five days of segregation.[5]  It appears that there is no upper limit to how long a youth can be held in solitary.  We have repeatedly requested that a written policy be put in place that defines the procedure and requirements for imposing solitary confinement.  The Ridley Group recommended this as well.[6] It appears that DOC has still not established and published such a policy and we ask that the Council ensure it does so in the coming fiscal year.

In-Person Visitation for Youth at CTF

We also recommend changes to the current visitation policy for youth at CTF.  It is my understanding that at present, female youth and all adult inmates at CTF are permitted in-person visitation, but male youth are limited to video visitation.[7]  During our site visit, we saw that the video visitation monitors were in a common area, allowing youth no privacy to talk to their family members.  How are these children, they are children, supposed to have honest meaningful visits with their families under these conditions?  Family contact is particularly important for the rehabilitation and reentry of youth and the conditions under which video visitation occurs is not conducive to meaningful family contact. In almost every hearing before this committee, I have recommended that DOC revisit and revise the policy on video visitation and I make that same recommendation today. I hope that your experience during the visit to the Title 16 unit makes it more evident how important it is for the current visitation policy be changed.  We recommend that in-person visitation be restored and that the video visitation monitors be moved to an area that allows for youth to have private conversations with their families.

Other Programmatic Concerns at CTF

In past years, we have asked for expanded structured programming, reentry planning, and youth-centered staff training.  The Ridley Group also noted deficiencies in these areas, saying that “the programming offered at the juvenile unit is insufficient and needs to be expanded,”[8] that “evidence-based reentry programming [should begin] as early as possible for juveniles from the moment they are admitted,”[9] and that “the unit has to rely on relief staff that normally work with adults.”[10]  The report indicates that DOC intended to take steps to expand programming and improve reentry planning in the last quarter of 2013.[11]  We hope that this Committee will ask DOC about its progress on those initiatives.  Also, the report indicates that some DOC staff received training on youth-specific topics from DYRS trainers.[12]  This is a positive step, but DOC continues to use a single hiring job description for correctional officers that will work with both youth and adults, and staff still reported that they needed more youth-focused training.[13]   In addition to this staffing challenge, the Ridley Group’s report also notes that there is a single reentry coordinator for youth and adults[14] and that there is no process to address youth-specific mental health needs.[15]  All of these facts highlight the fundamental challenge of housing a small group of youth with a large population of adults—that challenge is that the staffing and culture of the facility tend to remain adult-centered and insufficiently address the unique needs of youth.

Conclusion

As I stated at the beginning of my testimony, we have been asking for at least three years for an independent evaluation of the conditions of confinement for youth at CTF. We felt that it was important to get a full picture of what young people at the jail experience—from the living conditions, to their education, to their recreation time. This report has shed some light on those areas. We think that it is very telling that the report states "The Unit space is inadequate for the population served. The school is cramped and the unit does not have dedicated programming or recreation space. Juveniles are required to share the gym and outdoor recreation space with the adults. Due to required site and sound separation, the juveniles can only use the space when the adults are not using it."[16] This is not the description of a place where our young people should be housed—especially because these young people are going to come back to the District. We recommend, as always, that this population be housed somewhere else—at a facility more equipped to handle youth.  However, in the meantime, it is our hope that this committee asks DOC to improve the conditions for youth at CTF.  Thank you for the opportunity to speak here today and I am available to answer any questions.



[1] Walter B. Ridley, Francis Mendez, and Ghia Ridley Pearson, The District of Columbia Department of Corrections Correctional Treatment Facility Juvenile Unit Assessment (The Ridley Group & Associates, LLC, n.d.).

[2] Stuart Grassian, “Psychiatric Effects of Solitary Confinement,” Journal of Law and Policy 22 (2006): 325–283.

[3] Alone & Afraid: Children Held in Solitary Confinement and Isolation in Juvenile Detention and Correctional Facilities (The American Civil Liberties Union, November 2013), https://www.aclu.org/files/assets/Alone%20and%20Afraid%20COMPLETE%20FINAL.pdf.

[4] Walter B. Ridley, Francis Mendez, and Ghia Ridley Pearson, The District of Columbia Department of Corrections Correctional Treatment Facility Juvenile Unit Assessment, 36.

[5] Ibid., 37.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., 45.

[8] Ibid., 11.

[9] Ibid., 21.

[10] Ibid., 14.

[11] Ibid., 49–50.

[12] Ibid., 15.

[13] Ibid., 44–45.

[14] Ibid., 20.

[15] Ibid., 25.

[16] Ibid., 9.


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