By David Harper, World Staff Writer
Friday, November 2, 2007
The U.S. Department of Justice introduced expert testimony Thursday meant to support its request for a preliminary injunction that, if granted, would lead to a federal court order demanding improved conditions at the L.E. Rader Center.
Four criminal justice consultants testified about alleged shortcomings in areas such as staff training, investigation of violent incidents, suicide prevention and even structural flaws at Rader, the state’s only maximum-security lockup for juvenile offenders.
Also, there was a relatively short period of secret testimony Thursday, which evidently featured first- hand accounts from current or former Rader residents.
The Justice Department announced its investigation into the conditions of confinement at the Sand Springs center in March 2004.
The Rader Center houses juvenile and youthful offenders ages 13 to 20. The average age of the residents is 17, according to a pleading filed by the state.
A lawsuit was filed last December in Tulsa federal court by DOJ’s Civil Rights Division. The Justice Department asked for a preliminary injunction in an Aug. 15 filing.
Attorneys for the state replied in subsequently filed court papers that the DOJ was exaggerating claims of things such as rapes and attempted suicides while failing to acknowl edge the improvements that have been made at the facility.
U.S. District Judge Gregory Frizzell scheduled a two-day hearing to hear testimony pertaining to the preliminary injunction request.
On Thursday’s opening day of testimony, Lindsay Hayes, project director of the Baltimore-based National Center on Institutions and Alternatives, said he believes that a Rader resident will succeed in a suicide attempt unless changes are made at the facility.
Without a different approach, “the question is not if it’s going to happen, but when,” said Hayes, who according to his organization’s Web site is a nationally recognized expert in the field of suicide prevention within jails, prisons and juve nile facilities.
The state has asserted in a court pleading that no Rader resident has succeeded in a suicide attempt since the Office of Juvenile Affairs began operating it.
However, Hayes said that officials “shouldn’t be sitting here waiting for someone to die in order to take this seriously.”
Hayes said improvements need to be made in areas such as staff training, initial screening of residents and monitoring of those who have physically harmed themselves in the past.
Oklahoma Assistant Attorney General Richard Mann at one point Thursday asked witness John Platt how much it would cost to re-do Rader’s physical plant.
Platt, who provides consulting services nationally to state and local correctional agencies, said he did not have an estimate. However, he said the current design is faulty and makes it difficult for staff to keep an eye on residents.
“If you can’t see, you can’t supervise,” Platt said.
Platt said he concluded in 2005 that the Rader Center was inadequately equipped to protect its residents.
Records show that Rader juveniles and staff have reported more than 1,200 alleged assaults during a three-year period. These include attacks among Rader juveniles and supposed abuse of youths by staff.
The state will have an op portunity to call witnesses on Friday.
A ruling on DOJ’s motion for a preliminary injunction is not expected at the conclusion of the testimony. Frizzell has already set a briefing schedule for the parties to file written proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law.