Advocates, neighbors and staff call on Inslee to save medium security Naselle Youth Camp
Inslee’s office says the remote location of the camp in southwest Washington made it difficult to provide services for the youth and prepare them for reentry.
The Washington Federation of State Employees, the union representing employees at the youth camp, says it might pursue legal action in an effort to keep the facility open.
Some of the most serious youth offenders in Washington state – long-term gang members, physically violent kids, those with felony drug convictions– travel every year to the tiny town of Naselle in Southwest Washington to try to turn their lives around.
Soon, however, the help offered there could be abruptly ending.
The Naselle Youth Camp, the state's only medium security detention facility for male youth ages 16 to 25, is on the chopping block. A provision in the state’s budget, which Governor Jay Inslee is expected to sign this week, calls for the closing of the youth camp by next year.
Officials would then transfer the property to the state Department of Natural Resources and Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction so that the facility can be converted into an outdoor school for public school students.
The facility, located on more than 20 acres of forest, has been around since 1966 and has faced threats of closure before. So far advocates of the camp and the approximately 100 union jobs it provides in a town with a population of about 500 have always managed to fight back and win. But the camp’s fate seems more uncertain now.
Those against the closing of the Naselle Youth Camp say they are concerned children will be forced to go to maximum security facilities with long waits for therapy and other services, such as Echo Glen Children’s Center and Green Hill School.
“No one is thinking about the impacts to these children and their families and community and to our state of taking away the most healing resource for the kids that need it most,” said Emily Reilly, an advocate with Kids are Kids Washington, a grassroots group that works to end youth incarceration.
Although Reilly wants to do away with the school-to-prison pipeline, she also says the environment offered at Naselle Youth Camp – with its staff, work and treatment programs – is better than the alternative: two maximum security facilities.
The possible closing of the camp has united activists like Reilly with some who are more conservative, such as state Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen, who is also fighting to keep the facility open.
At a recent town hall meeting about the possible closure, Walsh disagreed with those who are philosophically opposed to youth incarceration and defended the Naselle Youth Camp.
“It's a belief that correctional facilities are inherently unfair. That they are inherently racist, they are inherently bigoted. And I just don't believe that's true,” Walsh said.
“I think that particularly when we're talking about, you know, juvenile facilities, this really is a chance for a young person to turn their lives around. Before they get into that life of prison revolving door type thing that we know is problematic. This is a path away from that.”
Lisa Nelson, the superintendent of the Naselle-Grays River Valley School District, also spoke about the absence of the NIMBY (not in my back yard) phenomenon in the town of Naselle.
“How many citizens, how many towns are receptive to the idea of a prison in their backyard?,” Nelson said at the town hall meeting. “The people here are special, and we do embrace that kind of work, and we give the kids a loving home, and a loving adult that works with them.”
Nelson continued by noting that though the facility is not fenced, there are few who run away from the camp because the children, too, recognize the quality of the staff and program. She said for a town with just one restaurant and grocery store, the closing of the campus would be devastating.
Rudi Rudolph, a longtime teacher at the camp, says the news of the possible closure has worried the young men at the facility and that there’s been an uptick in discipline as a result.
Although Inslee has not said what he plans to do, the Washington state Department of Children, Youth and Families says it supports the decision to close the camp in part because it is difficult for families in King and Pierce counties to get to.
Ross Hunter, secretary of the Washington state Department of Children, Youth and Families, also says youth detention overall has been steadily declining and that the services at Naselle Youth Camp are no longer needed.
“This is about trying to get young people placed as close to home as they can be and really recognizing that we don't need to run that third institution,” Hunter said in a recent interview.
The annual budget for the Naselle Youth Camp is just under $10 million, according to the department.
Echo Glen Children’s Center in Snoqualmie recently made headlines after five teenagers escaped the maximum security facility and drove off in a state-owned car.
Last year, three youth incarcerated at Green Hill School filed a lawsuit against the Washington state Department of Children, Youth and Families, after they were handcuffed and placed in solitary confinement for disobeying an order for a strip search.
Shamron Wulf, a juvenile rehabilitation specialist at the camp and a member of the Washington Federation of State Employees, the union representing employees at the facility, says the guild is weighing possible legal action to keep the center open.