WARRENTON — From the outside, the North Coast Youth Correctional Facility looks fairly nondescript, a secluded, walled-in green and beige complex in the woods near Costco. The facility houses a continually rotating population of up to 50 young inmates between the ages of 14 and 21, mostly invisible to local residents.
But inside the walls, employees are engaged on the front lines of trying to prevent some of Oregon’s most troubled youths from a further life of crime through drug and alcohol treatment, education and job training.
“We do great work with tough kids,” said James Sapper, an Oregon Youth Authority employee who helped start the facility in barracks at Camp Rilea nearly 20 years ago and took over as director in December.
More than two-thirds of the inmates are affiliated with gangs from Portland and Salem, Sapper said, and many have dealt with substance abuse, been taken advantage of by adults and largely lacked role models. His group life coordinators, guards for the youth offenders, handle their daily living needs.
Joining Sapper Monday for an interview and tour of the facility was Richard Glinert, principal of the South Jetty High School, operated by the Warrenton-Hammond School District within the prison. Glinert oversees the three teachers and five educational assistants who help the high-school-age inmates toward a diploma or GED exam.
The two spoke with pride about the 25 students who, after coming into South Jetty with varying stages of a high school education and personal issues, have earned their diplomas since January.
Sapper and Glinert said the inmates are often troubled but highly intelligent youths in need of more structure and mentoring, such as 18-year-old La’Braye Franklin, a gang-afflicted teenager from Portland who came to South Jetty in May after violating his parole.
Franklin, who came in with 13 out of 25 credits needed to graduate, has earned 12 high school credits in the past six months and hopes to graduate in the coming weeks.
An aspiring rapper and confident public speaker who interned in summer 2014 for Portland Mayor Charlie Hales, Franklin said he comes from a structureless family, including an absentee father and a mother recently released from federal prison and trying to kick drug addiction. Franklin said South Jetty has provided him with the structure needed to buckle down.
Most of the guards treat inmates with respect, he said, while providing rewards for good behavior. On Monday, Franklin wore a gold shirt reserved for the best-behaved inmates, granting them more freedom of movement, later bedtimes and other perks.
Scheduled for release before Christmas, Franklin said he is looking forward to finding a place with his girlfriend away from bad influences, focusing on his music and engaging in outreach to similarly disadvantaged youths.
“I came here a boy,” Franklin said. “I’ll leave a man.”
Sapper said working at the youth authority takes a firm, strong personality, but also a level of mutual respect between inmates and guards. The youth authority has undertaken training its staff in Positive Human Development, a redeveloped culture that focuses on accountability while helping youth develop the skills and maturity needed to lead positive lives.
“It’s the old Golden Rule, so to speak, treating youth and our peers with respect, like we like to be treated,” Sapper said.
While offering a full curriculum, South Jetty tries to recreate as much as possible, the experience of high school for their incarcerated students.
Warrenton Grade School Librarian Kathy Merritt was brought in to improve the facility’s library, asking students what they want to read. Glinert said students at South Jetty, without cellphones and other distractions, are avid readers. Allowed to check out two books at a time, he said, they will sometimes try to sneak more out in their clothes, and queue expectantly whenever a new shipment of books is on the way. Merritt also teaches inmates how to read books on video to send their younger siblings and children.
Computer-based learning mentors Danielle Jeffery and Andrea Pellervo, both young women new to the teaching profession, oversee students taking online courses in one of two computer labs with restricted connections for online work.
Both said they initially felt intimidated by working in a correctional facility, but have had their preconceptions about jail changed by a mostly warm environment with respectful students. Pellervo said South Jetty is infused with innovative strategies at getting kids engaged, from a music player on their computers opening if they work fast enough, to pizza parties for students who make the honor roll by completing enough credits.
The school offers activities such as a driving simulator, a virtual welding machine, a student-written newspaper, “The Locked Up Times,” and intramural sports teams that compete with the Youth Authority’s nine other correctional facilities. In a third living unit left over from the shuttered Youngs Bay Detention Center, staff have created a sort of recreational hall, complete with a couch, television, video games and other rewards for students who exhibit positive behavior. Ringing half of the center are cells still available for students who act out and need restraint.
Sapper said he is having trouble filling the ranks of group life coordinators. A job listing for the position said it requires the ability to handle verbal abuse, threats and the use of reasonable force. But Sapper said talking to inmates suffices most of the time, and the position is full-time, pays well and offers benefits and a retirement package.
Glinert said the facility also desperately needs volunteers to come work with inmates. “They can come in here and read with guys that like to read, or play cards with guys. We’re trying to get tied into some things where we can have guys come in here and show some vocational skills.”
“We know that there’s a stigma about these four walls here,” Glinert said. “Nobody really knows what goes on in here, just the fact that I haven’t had any turnover in education in two years, and every sub that I get in here is more than willing to come back. They love coming back out here, because the guys here are probably in a lot better temperamental shape than the guys across town.”