Expansion of Work Experience Program aims to promote vocational skills
by Steve Howe
Eastern Oregon Youth Correctional Facility (EOYCF) held a public meeting last Thursday (July 31) at the Harney County Community Center. The purpose was to outline a plan to expand the Work Experience Program (WEP) to include work crews operating outside of the facility.
According to EOYCF Superintendent Doug Smith, the first phase of the plan would be to establish an on-site work crew. This crew would be assigned to jobs outside the perimeter of the facility walls, but would still be on the grounds of the facility.
In a later phase, Smith would like to see EOYCF work with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF) to create opportunities for juvenile offenders to work in various capacities, including clean-up projects and firefighting.
There are currently similar programs operating within the Oregon Youth Authority (OYA) system. Brett Dunten, an instructor at RiverBend Youth Transition Camp in La Grande, was in attendance to describe the work crew program in place there, which includes a firefighting training program. He said there is also a construction training program – youth have worked for contractors and built a house for Habitat for Humanity. Works crews have done highway and park clean-up as well, he added.
Dunten explained that it is important for the youth to be able to come out of the facility with the skills needed to get a job.
“They’re all going to go back to the community, so we need to train them to be successful citizens,” he said.
Public comment at the meeting was overwhelmingly supportive of the proposed program. Some specific logistical concerns were raised, but in general, those in attendance expressed the view that the work crews would be beneficial to the youth offenders and to the community.
Harney County Judge Steve Grasty made reference to discussions held in 1996 before EOYCF opened. There was a lot of concern about the siting of the facility in the community, he said.
He explained that one of the things that helped lessen the concern was a promise to not let inmates outside the walls of the facility. EOYCF has stuck to that promise for the last 17 years, he said. For that reason, he said that in order for him and the Harney County Court to be in agreement with the idea of outside work crews, they would need to know that public opinion supports the change in policy.
“We really need to hear the people of this community say, ‘let’s do this, let’s try it’,” said Grasty.
Dale White, former Harney County Judge, said that it was time to move forward and that the new program would be beneficial in many ways.
“If you can teach them something that they can earn a living with, there’s opportunity for them to be good members of society,” said White.
Others in attendance made similar comments.
There were some concerns raised, however. Steve Ruzicka said that he worked for OYA for 27 years, and was at one point a work crew supervisor. He said that although he believes that the program would be beneficial for those involved, he knows from experience that there is always the risk of runaways.
“You can’t guarantee the public that they’re not going to run. That’s the only thing the public needs to know – that it may happen – and they should know what the plan is,” said Ruzicka.
Smith said the plan is included in the draft document detailing protocol for the proposed program. He said he agrees that there’s always a potential for runaways, but that the selection process for placement on the work crews helps to decrease that risk.
“The kids that we’re talking about specifically are Department of Corrections kids, and we’re talking about older kids, we’re talking about kids that have a lot to lose if they were to run,” explained Smith.
“We’re basically looking at about 12 kids potentially to be eligible for this,” he said.
“I’m not a Pollyanna by any stretch, I know this stuff could happen, but I guess I’m looking at the advantages versus the risk, and I do see the benefits,” Smith added.
Smith said another reason that the program is important is that the state legislature has asked OYA to submit a 10-year plan. This is coming in the near future, and will determine which facilities remain open and at what capacity, Smith said. Six of the 10 facilities across the state have a program like this already. Implementing it at EOYCF would help keep it competitive with these other facilities.
“If we don’t keep up and keep moving forward, we’re going to suffer,” said Smith.
He added that he sees the potential for adding more jobs at the facility with the implementation of this program.
Copies of a draft document detailing operating protocol for proposed work crews were distributed at the meeting. It described in detail the eligibility criteria, the selection process, and security and supervisory requirements for youth offenders on work crews. The following are highlights of the document, which is subject to modifications based on input EOYCF receives.
The requirements for eligibility of youth offenders to participate in a work crew include:
• Must be 17 years or older and have completed high school or GED;
• “Gold Tag” program status (highest level achieved through a grading system evaluating work and education performance, behavior and treatment progress);
• Successful completion of core treatment goals;
• No history of escape from secure facilities.
• Superintendent approves youth offenders for on-site work crew;
• sensitive or high profile juvenile offenders and adult corrections offenders will need to be approved through the Agency Case Review (ACR) process;
• the Work Experience Program Coordinator is responsible for ensuring the approved outside work crew list is maintained in central control and with local law enforcement. The list will contain the youth offender’s name, date of birth, crime of conviction, alerts, photo, etc.
Security & Supervision
• Under no circumstances are youth offenders allowed to wear personal clothing during any work detail. All clothing worn during off site work crews will be easily identifiable as OYA property;
• prior to exiting the facility, the Control Officer will contact Harney County Sheriff’s Office and notify them that an OYA work crew will be outside the facility on the grounds;
• there will be a ratio of one work crew supervisor to four youth offenders;
• the work crew supervisor will have a radio and cell phone at all times. The cell phone will be password protected;
• in the event of an emergency, including escape, serious injury, or other medical emergency, the staff will call 911 on the cell phone and radio for assistance to central control immediately;
• in the event of an escape, staff will escort all remaining youth offenders into the intake areas of the facility and remain until they are properly identified and approved by the Officer of the Day to return to their living units.