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YOUTH PRISON CLOSES; SOME OFFENDERS FREE.

Byline: Diane Dietz The Register-Guard

ALBANY - While burly transport agents clamped manacles and chains on 17 boys Wednesday, staff members at the now-shuttered Oak Creek youth prison wished them a surprisingly fond farewell.

"Nice small steps," Superintendent Mike Conzoner said to the youngest ones, boys of 12 or 13 with downy fuzz on their chins who shuffled uncertainly in the shackles. "Are you OK?"

Program director Chuck Haas bid each teen - including the wary older boys - farewell with a handshake, shoulder pat and a "take care of yourself, buddy."

Afterward, he said: "These kids had people leave them all their lives. It's important to have some process when they go."

Their departure from Oak Creek Youth Correctional Facility marked an end to Oregon's system of regional youth prisons designed to hold violent and destructive teen-agers accountable for their actions, and also offer them a last chance for reform.

Some say it marks the return to the bad old days when young criminals swung through a revolving door of community detention to prey on neighbors until the teens did something really bad.

It means mothballing the 5-year-old, $11 million Oak Creek prison on the southern outskirts of Albany - with the original groundbreaking shovel, ribbons still dangling from its handle, leaning in the main office.

Oak Creek and three other regional youth prisons around the state were closed in recent weeks because of the precipitous fall in state revenue during the past six months and state voters' refusal in January to pass a patchwork ballot measure to raise income taxes.

As a result, the Oregon Youth Authority ordered a reduction of 250 from the state's 1,025 youth prison beds.

That meant a drop in the number each of Oregon's 36 counties could send to a state prison for punishment and treatment. Lane County's share, for instance, fell from 68 to 40.

The reduction was made gradually over the past 1 1/2 months, with some inmates going to transitional programs, some to foster homes and some to their families under supervision of a parole officer. The teens are convicts with records including burglary, sex crimes and assault.

But officials deemed 36 of the 82 boys in Oak Creek unready for release and transported them to the MacLaren youth prison in Woodburn, including the 17 bused away on Wednesday.

Faye Fagel, youth corrections coordinator for the south Willamette Valley region, said prison officials did their best to assess which of the 28 youths returned to Lane County were the least likely to reoffend.

The decision was not based just on the seriousness of their offenses but also on how they've progressed in their personal reform program, she said. Those chosen for release had developed the best self-awareness, self-control and desire to fit into normal life. But the prison staff isn't making any guarantees.

They were "real tough" decisions, Conzoner said.

"It's not an exact science," Fagel said. "What I want people to understand is we're being as responsible as we can be. With some kids we'll be successful and sometimes we won't."

Now, Lane County parole officers are trying to supervise 35 inmates each - with virtually all of them out in the community - and making sure they stick with jobs, follow their family's instructions and steer clear of drugs and alcohol, said Glen Brigham, parole and probation supervisor.

The parole officers have fewer disincentives to offer the teens: The district attorney has delayed prosecution for property crimes, there's little or no room in the local county detention and the already trimmed-down prison allotment is used up.

Two inmates who were released from Oak Creek in the past month already broke parole and were returned, so the county is two offenders over its limit and will have to release two other inmates.

"It's a tenuous time for us. As each day goes by we have a better understanding of what the implications are. Right now it just feels very chaotic," Brigham said.

Steve Doell, president of Crime Victims United of Oregon, said Oregonians are going to regret the day the state let the 250 inmates out. "These are not kids who kicked over headstones or popped off hubcaps," he said. "These are serious, serious crimes."

The release will generate a "government-induced" spike in violent crime, he said. "We are going to reap the harvest, and it's going to be a terrible thing."

Closing Oak Creek also put 71 staff members out of work, while six of the 77 who ran the prison bumped lower-ranking staff members out of jobs at other institutions.

Additionally, the prison high school was closed, eliminating the jobs of seven teachers and four teaching assistants.

The loss of Oak Creek is the loss of a hard-fought ideal of giving strong emphasis to both accountability and reform. The inmates there stayed from six months to five years, with an average duration of nine months. And that was long enough to get the attention of many teen-agers, staff members said.

The staff taught the inmates by forging relationships with them, Fagel said.

The program was working, Fagel said. After five years, the staff was well trained and the managers were continually testing and recalibrating the program for optimal success.

"We had kids leave in a very different place than when they came in," she said.

CAPTION(S):

Superintendent Mike Conzoner waves goodbye to the last busload of prisoners leaving the Oak Creek Youth Correctional Facility in Albany. Please turn to OAK CREEK, Page A11 Oak Creek: County parole officers are now supervising offenders Continued from Page A1 Chris Pietsch / The Register-Guard Juvenile offenders wait in a holding cell at Oak Creek for a trip to another state facility.
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Title Annotation:The 5-year-old Oak Creek facility is one of four correctional facilities shut; Politics
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Mar 13, 2003
Words:947
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