- Associated Press - Saturday, August 15, 2015

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - Ohio’s youth prisons system is moving to seven-day-a-week visitations to make it easier for parents and guardians to see their children, a policy change officials hope will mean fewer return trips once they’re released.

The agency has to keep juveniles connected to their families if it wants improved outcome for the youth, said Harvey Reed, director of the Department of Youth Services.

“Everybody’s parent and guardian is not off on Saturday and Sunday,” Reed said last week. He added: “We try to make sure to meet kids where they are, and families, because that’s what this is about. It’s about engaging those families.”

Daily visitation will start in November at Circleville Juvenile Correctional Facility in central Ohio. Cuyahoga Hills Juvenile Correctional Facility in northeastern Ohio and Indian River Juvenile Correctional Facility in Massillon already offer the expanded hours.

The agency already offers families free bus trips to facilities, with 69 trips bringing 677 passengers to youth prisons last year. The agency also sets up video chats between youth and family members.

At Indian River, Tim and Sara Barrick of Ashland arrive every Tuesday and Thursday evening and again Saturday and Sunday to visit their two sons.

The couple plays chess, checkers or other board games and card games like euchre and spades with the 15- and 16-year-old brothers serving three to five years on felony charges. The couple and DYS declined to describe the crimes.

The expanded visitation is far better than the hour a week they had when the boys were in a nearby county lock-up before sentencing, Tim Barrick said.

“These are young boys just learning life goals, and parents should be involved 100 percent with their children up there,” he said. The boys’ four other siblings, grandparents and aunts and uncles also visit often, said Barrick, 59, a security officer for Ashland municipal court.

Youth Services now houses about 440 boys in its remaining three prisons and one alternative facility in southern Ohio, a far cry from the more than 2,500 housed in numerous facilities around Ohio in the late 1990s. About 20 girls are housed in alternative settings that also offer expanded visitation.

Over the years, the agency has followed the national practice of keeping all but the most violent youthful offenders in community lock-ups and other facilities close to home to avoid exposing them to a prison-like environment.

The result is that the remaining children behind bars are some of the toughest youthful offenders in Ohio and tend to be older.

The system hasn’t always made improvements on its own terms. A 2004 federal lawsuit alleging a culture of violence in the system led to widespread changes.

And last year, the agency reached a settlement with the Justice Department to dramatically reduce the use of seclusion of juveniles with mental health issues.

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Online: http://www.dys.ohio.gov/dnn/

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Andrew Welsh-Huggins can be reached on Twitter at https://twitter.com/awhcolumbus

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