News of a fight between teens at a youth correctional facility might not seem surprising.
But one of the teens writing a letter to show remorse for his actions? That’s not as common.
A 17-year-old at Rogue Valley Youth Correctional Facility in Grants Pass recently crafted such a letter after he and another youth assaulted a third, breaking his jaw.
Staff said that J (name not given for privacy) was adamant that he be able to tell T, whose jaw he had broken, that he was truly sorry and was really bothered that he was responsible.
In his letter, J also acknowledged the harm he caused to the staff: “I definitely didn’t mean for T to get hurt like he did. I apologize to any of you who had to put extra work in and weren’t able to make it home to your families (at) the time they expected you.” (Read the rest of the letter in the image below.)
J’s apologies are part of restorative justice, a program adopted by Rogue Valley that Oregon Youth Authority is looking at implementing throughout the agency. It’s an internationally-recognized method of conflict resolution that not only aims to help people reform, but also guides them toward repairing relationships they have harmed with their actions. Although restorative justice is a name that was coined in modern times, it’s a practice that is believed to date back hundreds of years among indigenous people.
The original intent of the method is to bring perpetrators and victims of crimes together, but OYA is only focusing on implementing the philosophy in the facility environment for now.
However, the skills the youth learn will also serve them well for when they return to the community.
OYA already has a protocol for working with facility youth who are being violent. Staff move them out of the immediate area temporarily for everyone’s safety. Then the youth work with staff to create a plan for how they will reintegrate back into their community at the facility and to build the skills they need to manage their emotions and handle conflict without violence.
The restorative justice program at Rogue Valley goes even further. For the incident mentioned above, the involved youth (including T, who had been harassing the other two before he was assaulted) had to meet specific expectations, including:
- identifying personal accountability for their part in the incident;
- expressing their feelings about the harm they caused each other and their living unit community;
- meeting together and sharing those feelings; and
- addressing the community about the harm they caused, how they felt about it, and the status of their relationships with each other.
“These were youth that would have felt obligated and pressured to retaliate in the past,” living unit manager Amy Bailey said. “Instead (of retaliating), they just met up with staff and talked about how the victim was impacted. The youth took responsibility, and they also moved forward — more like a sibling relationship than inmates bound to the criminal code.”
The involved youth, who are actually leaders on their unit, also had to discuss other choices they could have made, identify steps to make sure they don’t do the negative actions again, and come up with ways to make things right with those they affected.
“The conflict resolution piece is not just to get along, but to understand what’s behind it and what we can do to restore the relationship,” said Clint McClellan, OYA assistant director of facility services.
How They Got Started
Rogue Valley leaders and staff started to explore restorative justice after an October 2013 living unit disturbance. Ten youth didn’t think they were being treated fairly and, as a result, created a lot of damage.
Afterward, “some of the kids said, ‘We want to make things right with the staff,’” said Randy Guisinger, program director at Rogue Valley.
So Rogue Valley’s leadership reached out for guidance from Medford-based Mediation Works, now called Resolve Center for Dispute Resolution and Restorative Justice.
“We learned more about it and started becoming interested in seeing if there was a way to extend that into our culture,” Guisinger said.
“Traditionally, the accountability piece, particularly in corrections, is thought of as, ‘Here’s the behavior and here’s the consequence.’ With restorative justice, it’s, ‘Here’s what happened, here’s who it impacted, and what can we do to fix those things so we can get back to having healthy relationships?’”
With OYA’s support, the facility has invested more energy into restorative justice every year. Resolve continues to lead staff trainings, moderate work groups to re-evaluate practices like youth isolation and consequences, and help the leadership team codify a behavior management system.
Rogue Valley has already seen quantifiable results. While this is consistent with other OYA facilities working on reducing the use of isolation, staff credit restorative justice as the main reason the facility has seen a significant decline since June 2017 of:
- youth assaulting staff;
- youth assaulting other youth;
- youth fighting with each other; and
- staff needing to use physical interventions while working with youth.
Additionally, as restorative justice practices are implemented at Rogue Valley, staff morale is on the rise. According to the 2019 OYA employee survey, more Rogue Valley staff:
- believe OYA promotes employees based on their knowledge, expertise, and commitment to the agency mission;
- trust OYA leadership and supervisors;
- feel involved in decisions that affect their work;
- feel safe emotionally; and
- feel supported and encouraged to improve their skills.
Restorative Justice in Action
Restorative justice works hand in hand with OYA’s Positive Human Development (PHD) approach. PHD focuses on safety and security, caring and supportive relationships, high expectations and accountability, meaningful participation, and community connection.
“We want to build a sense of community here because it’s a group living situation; we’re all here living and working together,” Guisinger said.
“That’s where it matches up with PHD: While you’re here, we want a safe and secure community, caring and supportive relationships, and so on. … Theoretically, (youth) then have the skills to take with them when they go out into the community.”
Lynn Tuttle, who has been a case coordinator for Charlie Unit at Rogue Valley, said she thinks OYA staff already practiced a lot of elements of restorative justice before formally adopting the approach. However, she admits the approach adds extra dimensions to conflict resolution.
“It goes full circle: ‘How did (your) behavior affect other people?’ instead of just saying, ‘Go to isolation, then come out,’” Tuttle said.
“We hadn’t done anything to deal with the relationship piece. If the kids are all about self-regulation and doing the restorative justice piece, they get back in the (social environment) quicker and are better.”
C., a youth who has only spent a handful of months at Rogue Valley, said he’s seen the benefits of restorative justice firsthand.
He recently fought with another youth and spent time in isolation. When he had calmed down and could think more clearly, C. sat down with the other youth and heard his point of view.
“It shows the other person’s perspective,” he said. “I was in my own mind. I was just thinking about myself. I learned he didn’t have issues (with me) and I didn’t (with him). I didn’t know that until it was too late. … We talked (about) how we would work past it and had encouragement from each other by the end of it.”
He’s also learned to appreciate staff more.
“The hardest part for most people is consequences, and they (the staff) do a good job of helping us work with that,” he said. “Staff (are) supportive. They talk to us and see our point of view.”
Building Community to Prevent Problems
While restorative justice is associated with repairing harm, the Rogue Valley campus is being proactive to change its community culture — before an incident occurs.
Unit staff lead weekly check-in meetings with small groups of youth. Youth pass a ball to each other, share how they feel on a scale of 1 to 5 (5 being great), and answer questions like where they see themselves in five years or what is currently motivating them.
Guisinger said the regular check-in meetings have been more effective in preventing incidents than if staff wait to respond to a negative situation.
“I think there’s less ‘us versus them’ with youth and staff, and that’s been a significant impact,” he said. “The frequency (of incidents) is down some, (and) intensity is down for kids. …
“Rather than focusing on simply applying the consequences, we also want to do the relational and skill work to get the youth once again becoming positive members of our community.”
As with many group living settings, Rogue Valley also has a reward system for positive behavior, such as extra phone calls or treats. Youth are categorized in four different behavioral levels. As they move up a level, they must have a certain number of weeks of positive behavior. The fourth level is called Leading the Change, and youth at that level serve as mentors.
When C. was involved in his fight, he had been just short of moving up to level three. The conflict moved him down in rank.
“I got set back, but it was my fault,” he admitted. “(Staff) give privileges when you do good, but the consequences are fair.”
Reflecting on the recent three-person fight and the subsequent apology letter, Guisinger said it was a perfect example of an overall change in the way both staff and youth approach conflicts.
“What has made it possible,” he said, “is really a longer-term process of building a positive and prosocial community through teamwork, and implementing PHD values, communication, and restorative justice consistently in the unit culture.”