The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

November 3, 2012

Former corrections officer blowing the whistle on YDC

By CARL E. FEATHER - cfeather@starbeacon.com
Star Beacon

ASHTABULA TOWNSHIP — A former corrections officer at the Youth Detention Center (YDC), who was terminated last month, is blowing the whistle on a variety of issues that he claims exist within the Ashtabula Township facility that houses up to 20 juvenile offenders.

Jonathon Williams, 29, was terminated last week following an incident that involved excessive use of force against an inmate. According to his letter of reprimand and Court Administrator Kathy Thompson, Williams placed an unruly resident in shackles and, after the resident spat on him, dragged him into his cell by the shackled ankles.

“You don’t drag anybody by the shackles across the floor,” Thompson said.

Williams, however, defends his actions as necessary because he claims that the YDC’s inmate population is more violent than ever as a result of fewer youngsters being accepted by the state facility. He claims that the authority of the corrections staff is being undermined by Thompson and Brian Perusek, the YDC director and chief probation officer, because they turn a sympathetic ear to the youngsters when they have an issue with the staff.

“We’re constantly being assaulted by these kids, and Kathy Thompson and Brian Perusek are letting them out of their cells the next day,” Williams said.

Thompson and Perusek said that Williams lacks proper historical perspective on the situation at the facility. He was hired in March to work 15 hours a weekend.

“He (had) only been here since March 19. You talk to the veteran staff and they will tell you these kids are nothing compared to the ones we had years ago.”

Thompson, who worked as an officer when she began her career there 25 years ago, said communication, not force, is the key to working with the residents.

“Working in a locked facility is a totally different skills set,” said Thompson, who quickly learned “verbal strategies” that help the inmate take ownership of proper behavior are far more effective than physical force. Further, she said the shift has been toward inmates with mental health issues rather than unbridled criminal intent. Perusek said about one-third of the inmates are on medication for mental illness. Regardless of their situation, the inmates’ greatest need is someone who is willing to listen, Thompson said.

“They just want to be heard,” Thompson said. “(Williams) never quite understood that.”

Williams provided the Star Beacon with a long list of funding-related deficiencies at the YDC, and he is convinced that his termination has an economic basis. By his calculations, he was just 45 minutes shy of meeting his probationary period requirement of 1,040 hours. But Thompson said Williams was actually 35 or more hours short. Further, there would have been an additional 90-day period, according to union contract, before he would have been off probation.

She and Perusek said his termination was related to job performance and his unsuitability to the work.

“He’s in the wrong business,” Hague said.

Williams, who is a criminal justice studies student at Kent State University, said the YDC did not provide any training that would have helped him deal with the residents or know the proper way to restrain them.

Thompson said most of the training that the YDC provides is on-the-job mentoring and programs paid for by state grants. She said a new hire, who will start Monday, has background in training and will be used as a resource to that end. But the training will still be heavily weighed to mentoring, observation and emulation.

Other complaints about the YDC that Williams levied include the lack of supplies to get the job done, particularly latex gloves. Thompson said the YDC’s budget has been slashed by nearly 20 percent compared to four years ago, and as administrator she’s had to take a hard look at every expense. She discovered that the center was using an inordinate amount of consumables, such as laundry soap, garbage bags and gloves. Once she put controls in place, the consumption of these items has dropped dramatically, as has spending on them.

Williams also levied criticism toward the court’s new state-funded program, Thinking for a Change (T4C), which is designed to keep youth who commit felonies out of the state facility. Williams said the judge misrepresented the program to the public in a newspaper story because at least two of the participants were locked up in the YDC during a portion of the program.

Thompson said Williams’ comments once again reflect his unfamiliarity with the YDC operation and that the participants were not being held at YDC in conjunction with their original offense. Rather, they were there because of sanctions resulting from them breaking a condition for participation, such as smoking or not coming home after school.

“We had no new criminal offenses by those kids in the group,” Thompson said of the T4C participants.

Williams also referred the Star Beacon to another former employee who was terminated in September. That employee did not return the Star Beacon’s call.