The D.C. government yesterday ordered strict new measures, including periodic drug testing for residents and regular body searches for visitors and staff members, aimed at ending alleged drug trafficking at its Oak Hill maximum-security facility for juveniles.
Audrey Rowe, the D.C. commissioner on social services, called Oak Hill's drug problem -- and allegations that staff members supplied drugs to juveniles -- her "No. 1 priority." She said City Administrator Thomas Downs told her to "fix it -- and fix it fast."
Among the new measures announced by Rowe was the establishment of a comprehensive drug counseling program for youths in the institution.
Rowe said she acted after The Washington Post reported Sunday that administrators at Oak Hill -- a 20-acre facility in Laurel where the District houses 150 of its most dangerous juveniles -- had largely given up trying to solve the drug problem.
The article, which was based on interviews with residents and staff members, included allegations that seven staff members, including five counselors, were users or suppliers of marijuana, cocaine and PCP.
"It's something that we're just not going to allow to continue to be freewheeling," Rowe said. "We will make people think twice about bringing drugs onto the facility."
The new measures are similar to those at Lorton Reformatory, the D.C. adult prison in Virginia. Although the new measures will require, for the first time, that Oak Hill staff members submit to pat-down searches when they go to work, Rowe's announcement was welcomed by several staff members.
"If we're going to talk about trying to get rid of the drugs . . . I think personally that searches of counselors need to be done," said Joseph Smith, a counselor and official with the union that represents Oak Hill counselors.
Rowe said, "I haven't even thought about the money . . . . This is a very real problem. It's one that we've got to attack.
"Once we get all of these pieces together we can look at what the costs are, and I've been assured by all of the people that I report to that . . . we'll find the resources that are necessary," she said.
Rowe announced these changes:
Visitors, who now pass through a metal detector or occasionally undergo body searches, will have to submit to thorough pat-downs before entering the institution. "That includes staff, visitors, attorneys, court personnel, the mayor, me . . . anyone walking through that facility," Rowe said.
Any visitor found to be carrying drugs into Oak Hill will be barred indefinitely from the grounds.
The security force will be doubled to 24 guards, and six of the new guards will be women. Rowe said the lack of female guards has made it difficult to search women visitors. The additional guards will enable the institution to conduct regular searches around the perimeter of the facility, she said.
Drugs confiscated from visitors will be held as evidence, and police will be notified for possible prosecution.
Staff members, who now have the freedom to leave Oak Hill during their shift, will be encouraged to remain on the grounds.
Staff members will need permission to bring in certain personal items that could be used to hide drugs. Rowe said she wants to have lockers, in which staff members can store their belongings, built near the entrance.
Six full-time drug counselors will be added to Oak Hill's staff. Oak Hill now provides sporadic group counseling sessions to a small number of youths, only when required by a judge. Twice-a-week counseling, in group and individual sessions, is to be held for all youths with drug problems or who were committed for drug-related activities. Many youths at Oak Hill who have been charged with serious crimes had tested positively for PCP in earlier court drug tests.
Bans on carrying cash, which allegedly is used to buy drugs inside Oak Hill, will be strictly enforced. Youths have been allowed to carry small amounts of cash for purchases of cigarettes or food from the canteen. Rowe said that canteen purchases will be made through a system of points, which will be earned for good behavior.
Drug testing equipment will be placed at Oak Hill, and a full-time certified examiner will be assigned there. Spot testing will be done frequently, and all youths who leave the institution for court or other reasons will be tested upon their return, Rowe said. She said that results will be available immediately. No testing is now done in the institution.
Rowe said she spent most of this week meeting with staff at the institution and with union officials. Smith said his counselors unit will review the procedures next week.
Edward Woodland, who represents Oak Hill cafeteria workers and maintenance employes, said he expected no resistance to the new security measures.
City Council member Polly Shackleton (D-Ward 3), who chairs the council committee that oversees Oak Hill, said the drug testing measures were long needed.
"I've never understood . . . why they couldn't have been doing the testing all along," Shackleton said.
Public Defender Service Director Cheryl Long, whose agency has filed a class action lawsuit against the city charging that programs and other services at Oak Hill are inadequate, criticized what she called "the notion expressed by some Oak Hill officials in the Post article that drug usage is to be tolerated as a normal part of institutional life."