Oregon Youth Authority tries to find the balance between safety and child welfare as it transitions from isolation

John, a youth mentor at MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility, helps 18-year-old Zack understand the various personalities of staff at the facility. John regularly works in the STEPS program, an alternative to isolation, which Zack uses several times each week. (Courtesy of Oregon Youth Authority)

WOODBURN — Early on the Friday before Christmas, Zack sat in the passenger seat as he rode across the frozen grounds of MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility.

He had been sent to the juvenile equivalent of isolation following an outburst on his living unit.

On his way, though, the 18-year-old encountered a staffer who instead took him to a less confining spot on campus to work through the trouble.

He ended up in a quiet room with a counselor who probed what triggered the scene.

This is STEPS, the state’s effort to move away from isolation as the answer to juvenile trouble.

Zack said he’s spent plenty of time in isolation and STEPS. In isolation, he stews. But he likes STEPS, he said, and goes a few times each week to cool down.

Only a few months old, STEPS is now used following verbal outbursts, or when a youth just needs a break. It allows them to calm down while not disrupting others. Before, they used to land incarcerated youth in a locked room, but now that is reserved for more violent episodes.

Zack’s conduct was in the middle of the trouble scale. In a monotone, measured voice, he told STEPS worker Rolando Contreras what happened. He remained deadpan as he described the rage he was feeling. Zack said he doesn’t show his anger until it’s uncontrollable. When he asked for a break after a dispute with another kid the staff told him he seemed fine.

He responded by throwing a shoe and kicking things.

“In the calm way, I was showing her I was mad. She didn’t believe me,” Zack said. “So I felt like I had to show her in a different way.”

The event was emblematic of Zack’s struggle with MacLaren, and the facility’s effort to better deal with incarcerated youth who often have lives rife with trauma. Zack had been held at Marion County Juvenile Detention since he was 12. Over the years, the staff learned what set him off and what calmed him down.

He transferred to MacLaren a month ago as he neared his 18th birthday. So far, he and the MacLaren staff are still doing an awkward, introductory dance.

MacLaren’s Isolation Unit. (Courtesy of Oregon Youth Authority)

The Oregon Youth Authority’s move away from isolation in favor of things like STEPS initially created a rub with some staff.

“There are systems that rely on isolation and rely on pepper spray,” Director Joe O’Leary said. “They are control devices. The belief is if you don’t have access to those, you’re making the environment less safe.”

O’Leary said as isolation use has declined, so have violent incidents. In 2017, the Legislature passed a bill endorsed by O’Leary that bans the use of isolation for punishment. Instead, the agency uses it to manage a youth in crisis and provide them an “opportunity to self-regulate behavior” according to state code. MacLaren workers still use it in the face of violence.

When a youth is in isolation, they must be monitored every 15 minutes, and taken out when they are no longer a danger to themselves or others. Youth can’t be in isolation more than five days.

Over the past few years, isolation at Oregon Youth Authority facilities has declined, going from 370 instances in July 2016 to 140 in December 2018.

A diverse group

MacLaren is the behemoth of Oregon’s juvenile justice system. It sits in northeast Woodburn, about 19 miles north of Salem on Highway 99 on a 172-acre parcel, 80 of which are enclosed in high fencing. With 271 beds, it’s Oregon Youth Authority’s largest institution, and generally operates at capacity.

It’s also infamous. During a recent visit, staff joked about how their parents used the facility as a threat.

“You’d better be good, or you’ll get sent to MacLaren,” they were told.

MacLaren holds some of Oregon’s most dangerous youth. Many were convicted under Measure 11, Oregon’s minimum sentencing law, and will eventually move to prison. It held Kip Kinkel, the Thurston High School shooter, for nearly 10 years until he was transferred in 2007.

It also currently houses 40 youth working on their bachelor’s degree. It holds young men becoming experts in metal work and machining, learning about their culture and fighting to change the juvenile justice laws keeping them locked up.

Four years ago, the department implemented a “positive human development” program aimed to rehabilitate youth. Part of that is treating the youth better: Staff are supposed to act more like councilors or social workers than correctional officers.

At Oak Creek Correctional Facility, the smaller female facility in Albany, that culture shift is visible. Youth are quick to talk about the good relationships they’ve built with employees, and how they are scared to leave such a supportive environment. But agency officials said transforming the culture in MacLaren is different.

Culture shift

“I think the bigger the facility, and the longer it’s been around, the harder it is,” said Clint McClellan, assistant director of facility services.

Sometimes workers feel the new approach puts them in danger.

“Where they live and breathe is around safety,” McClellan said of staff. “That’s their lifeblood.”

McClellan said some of the “old school” staff saw the shift as letting kids do whatever they wanted with no repercussions. About five years ago, agency executives conducted meetings with staff about reducing time in isolation. Heber Bray, a youth authority policy analyst, said the push of taking away such a classic tool was long and trying.

“You can watch any corrections movie anywhere in the world,” he said. “That’s the punishment – you go to the hole.”

One of MacLaren’s isolation cells. (Courtesy of Oregon Youth Authority)

In a juvenile setting, getting sent to isolation can include time in a restricted cell, working with staff on the unit, or other activities.

“As episodes reduce, the length of stay in isolation goes up, because you are only using it for serious episodes,” Bray said. In December, stays on the isolation unit at all facilities ranged from 25 minutes to four days.

Line workers made it clear that one disruptive kid can trigger disarray in a 25-person unit. There needed to be somewhere to send them. They landed on creating an “in between” space, like STEPS, where a kid could go to cool down and have therapy without being in isolation. But agency heads knew if STEPS was considered punishment, like isolation, it wouldn’t have the desired effect.

When considered punishment, “It becomes another hammer,” Bray said.

At the end of summer, STEPS was born. It stands for “stop, think, explore, plan.” The program is housed in an old kitchen and dining hall previously used for youth living. Only MacLaren uses STEPS, but Bray said it will be rolled the four other juvenile corrections locations in the spring.

Finding an alternative

In a large agency, a mentality fostered over decades can be hard to shed. Back in the STEPS building, Zack told Ronaldo Contreras about another staffer that he struggles to get along with. Contreras, fellow STEPS worker Chaan Saechao and a youth helper all discussed the staffer as well. The consensus: He’s old school.

Zack said the staffer talks to him in a commanding way, threatening to punish him if he doesn’t obey. He likened it to being treated like an animal.

What Zack described was opposite of what the agency is working to implement, and which is so clearly on display at Oak Creek. But Contreras’ response perfectly aligned with the new mission.

Contreras asked Zack to role play the staffers he was mad at. He then would imitate their voices and actions, even in a mocking tone. It diffused a tense situation. Zack eased up. He listened to observations and laughed. He was vulnerable, talking about the issues he deals with daily.

And Contreras used the opportunity to explain that the workers mean well, and have a lot to deal with.

But Contreras conceded that some employees are struggling under the new culture guidelines, even if they’ve been in place for years. Contreras then explained that he would report the incident, including how Zack viewed it, so other employees could learn.

Life on the unit

Ezequiel shows the Native American sweat lodge built on the MacLaren property. Using the lodge and learning things like historic Aztec dances have helped him relate with his culture as he sheds his past running with gangs. (Aubrey Wieber/Salem Reporter)

STEPS addresses a critical demographic at MacLaren, mostly younger and traumatized, Bray said.

“The kids that use STEPS the most are emotionally reactive kids — the kids that maybe shouldn’t have been brought into the incarceration system to begin with,” Bray said.

Ezequiel, 23, is seven years into a 20-year sentence. Today, he’s a model inmate. He’s about to graduate from Portland State University on the dean’s list. He has stopped getting in fights and has become spiritual. The large gang tattoo across his chest is fading following on-site tattoo removal sessions, analogous of the former life he started to shed a couple years into his time at MacLaren.

Ezequiel is an ambassador of reform, and was picked to guide a reporter’s tour of MacLaren. He and others with long sentences are active in Hope Partnership, a program that brings in experts to show their craft, whether it be podcasting, gardening or film.

Through these programs, Ezequiel got in touch with his Aztec roots. He learned cultural dances, and started using a sweat lodge on the grounds. There, he said, a couple years into his stay at MacLaren, things clicked for him and he learned to be humble, he said.

“I was introduced to that here,” Ezequiel said. “I wasn’t introduced to that out in the community.”

Reporter Aubrey Wieber: [email protected] or 503-575-1251. 

A note from our editor:

Thank you for reading another example of our local journalism. This kind of work takes paid professionals and we rely on subscribers to support this work. If you haven’t yet signed on as a Salem Reporter subscriber, please ensure you get more of these kinds of stories with your subscription: Click HERE. Thank you. — Les Zaitz, editor