Oak Creek Youth Correctional Facility is an all-female facility in Albany, Oregon. The only one in the state. Last month I spent 12+ hours talking, photographing, and recording the people who live and work at Oak Creek. What follows is an excerpt of a conversation with Mike Riggan, the superintendent of Oak Creek, on maintaining a safe environment while simultaneously dealing with the threat of aggressive youth.
[See all blog posts on Oak Creek HERE]
Mike Riggan, superintendent:
“Here is our history: after Oak Creek was opened as a girls-only facility, a number of girls engaged in an escape plan. After lights out on graveyard shift two girls staged a fight in the dorm on the Cedar Unit. The other five girls had taken shampoo and soap and placed it on the floor. They were able to secret a steel rod and broom handle. As staff entered the dorm to break up the fight, they slipped, and were assaulted by the girls.
[superquote]I think the antidote for youth aggression is creating an environment that is safe, kind, structured, and reinforcing, but I also know you have to prepare for the worst if that doesn’t work.[/superquote]
Two of the staff were so traumatized by the event, they never returned to work. So here is the dilemma, we are the only girls program in the state. As the seemingly last resort, we get a number of girls that have been not only highly traumatized, but also very aggressive and willing to engage in harming behaviors to themselves and others. It is not uncommon to have girls in our facility who have come from community residential programs with multiple staff assaults on their record or assaults on peace officers. Our staff do incredibly well with these girls and staff assaults are rare… thankfully, and we do a great job of controlling contraband. Trust me, the facility learned some hard lessons from the aforementioned riot. But, given our history and given the volatility of girls, if we have to go into a confined space because a girl has a weapon and is threatening self harm or destroying property we do have equipment and training to go in safely to avoid staff and youth injury, which the shields and the equipment provide. We haven’t used them while I’ve been here. In fact, I don’t think they have been used at all. But, as much as I believe in creating a culture that is kind, therapeutic, structured, and safe – I also want staff to know if they have to intervene, then let’s intervene as safely as possible.
[superquote]I want staff to know if they have to intervene, then let’s intervene as safely as possible.[/superquote]This intervention would take place after a great deal of engagement with the youth, usually performed by our mental health staff (we have three) along with two psychologists, a psychiatrist, and a psychiatric nurse practitioner. It is the ultimate double bind. If you do nothing and the youth injures themselves or destroys the room, you’ll be questioned “Why didn’t you intervene.” If you intervene, then you’ll be questioned about your decision to do so. Adult prisons certainly use a number of other means before they go “hands on” which we don’t. I guess I would sum it up this way, I think the antidote for youth aggression is creating an environment that is safe, kind, structured, and reinforcing, but I also know you have to prepare for the worst if that doesn’t work. The staff here have seen the worse, have come out on the other side, and are remarkable that they still possess a pro-kid attitude.”