New center models holistic, age-appropriate, therapeutic approaches
February 21, 2013 by Kaukab Jhumra Smith
LAUREL, Md. — A few years ago, facilities manager Carl Matthews rounded a corner inside a residential unit of a secure juvenile center near Washington, D.C., and came across the dangling body of a boy who had, moments earlier, hung himself from the metal pipes that crisscrossed the ceiling of his room.
A sheet was wrapped so tightly around the boy’s throat that Matthews was afraid to cut it with an emergency knife. “I hoisted him up and another guy got his fingers in and we got him down. But that night was what haunted me,” Matthews said. “I just couldn’t fathom being that hopeless at 16.”
The boy survived. His suicide attempt was one more strike against the Oak Hill Youth Center, the secure juvenile facility for the District of Columbia that has been described by at least one advocate as “quite frankly, a hell-hole.” During its lifetime, from 1967 to 2009, Oak Hill developed a reputation as a grim breeding ground for adult prison, a “beat-up and beat-‘em-up” place that lumped together high-risk kids with low-risk ones and functioned as a rite of passage for generations of young black men.
In 2009, the District closed the 208-bed Oak Hill and opened an airy, glass-and-brick 60-bed campus less than a mile away, part of a sweeping set of reforms in the juvenile justice system that the city government began working on nearly a decade ago. In doing so, the District joined a growing list of jurisdictions that are moving away from the harshly punitive systems that became particularly widespread following spikes in juvenile crime in the late 1980s and early ‘90s.
In the last 15 years, as juvenile crime rates have fallen throughout the country – for reasons that even top analysts cannot definitively identify – so has public pressure to get tough on crime. As a result, jurisdictions like the District are able to adopt more innovative, rehabilitative approaches that keep young offenders closer to their families and offer them community-based services that take into account their age and brain development, said Akiva Liberman, a senior fellow at the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C.
While the District is near the forefront of this movement, it is certainly not alone, said Sarah Bryer, director of the D.C.-based National Juvenile Justice Network. States like California, Alabama, Florida and New York have undertaken similar measures to reduce the number of young people held in secure facilities. “Across the country, jurisdictions are realizing that incarcerating youth in secure confinement facilities neither serves public safety interests, doesn’t help the children, nor does it help the state budget,” Bryer said.
Reducing capacity at secure residential facilities frees up scarce resources for developing quality wrap-around services within the community, said Jeffrey Butts, director of the Research and Evaluation Center at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. “If we increase the juvenile justice budget by 10 times, we would not have these (secure) buildings,” Butts said. “We would have a full-time teacher and a social worker and a cognitive therapist and a job placement coordinator. We would just create teams of support around that kid and try to recreate the good parenting that they’re lacking.”
In some cases, community-based services and monitoring may not be enough to maintain public safety, he said. “It will always be necessary to take some kids out who are incapable of playing by the rules and behaving,” Butts said. “But the risk is that institutions grow so comfortable with that that they lower the threshold for that commitment.”
He continued, “When you reduce capacity, it forces people to get serious about which young people really need to be locked up.”
The road to reform
In 2000, following a lawsuit and years of complaints about conditions at Oak Hill, then-Mayor Anthony Williams set the reform process in motion by establishing the Blue Ribbon Commission on Youth Safety and Juvenile Justice Reform, funded by The Annie E. Casey Foundation. Williams tapped as its chairman D.C. Superior Court Judge Eugene Hamilton, who was known as an advocate for the city’s children.
Fifteen months later, the commission returned with several recommendations, including closing Oak Hill in favor of a more intimate facility; moving resources from incarcerating young people to treating them within their communities; and reducing the prosecution of young people in adult courts. It also recommended establishing a complete emotional, psychological, educational, and physical assessment for each child entering the city’s juvenile justice system.
“We realized that children needed a continuum of treatment, not only in an institution in some instances, but back in the community,” Judge Hamilton said in “The Road to Rehabilitation and Reform,” a video produced by the nonprofit D.C. Lawyers for Youth. He died in 2011.
Action on the recommendations took several years. In 2004, the D.C. City Council approved legislation to close Oak Hill and divert resources to community-based alternatives to incarceration. It also passed legislation to replace the Youth Services Administration under the city’s Department of Human Services with a youth-focused agency whose director would report directly to the mayor. Led by Vincent Schiraldi, director of the newly created Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services (DYRS), the city finally began to plan and implement reforms in 2005.
Schiraldi, who led DYRS for five years before taking a job with New York City’s Department of Probation, is widely credited as a visionary who rammed through reforms to change the culture of the District’s youth justice system from correctional to therapeutic. People who have worked with him describe a passionate advocate who could persuade people from all walks of life to share his vision. But Schiraldi was still met with fierce resistance, whether from union members at correctional facilities or other advocates who disagreed with his approach.
During his tenure, Schiraldi reached out to national and local foundations to partner with the District government in implementing reforms. In 2007, one of these partnerships resulted in a nonprofit, the See Forever Foundation, taking over administration of the school at Oak Hill and then at the new, smaller secure facility that replaced it, a move that has resulted in dramatic improvements in academic achievement for incarcerated youth.
The environment as the message
Three years have passed since the District opened the $46 million New Beginnings Youth Development Center in the same secluded, wooded area in the Maryland suburb of Laurel as the now-defunct Oak Hill. Interviews with youth, staff, and advocates — and two separate tours of the New Beginnings campus — show real efforts to create a therapeutic, holistic model for youth rehabilitation.
But changing a culture of correction can be difficult, especially if city and agency leadership have changed as well. When New Beginnings opened, the Washington Post reported there were no razor wire fences around the facility and that young people would be able to let themselves out of their rooms to go to the bathroom at night. Now, razor wire is visible from residential units, and youth must wait for a night attendant to buzz them out of their rooms to use the bathroom, only one person at a time.
Despite some rather forbidding surroundings (the ruins of an infamous mental health facility once run by the District are close by, as is Oak Hill) the New Beginnings campus works hard to embody its cultural values: buildings are spacious and well-lit, ceilings are high, floor-to-ceiling windows are common, and student-created art is everywhere, from sculptures soldered from scrap gun metal in the lobby to a giant painted mural in the cafeteria.
There’s also a gleaming gymnasium, a weight room, a full-size indoor basketball court and another basketball court outdoors. Last year marked the first time that New Beginnings students have elected representatives for student government. They’re also currently working with their social studies teachers to publish a student newsletter several times a year.
Every young person at the facility participates in daily group-therapy sessions with his residential unit, and must earn his way up through six levels of behavior before he can be released. Moving from one level to the next requires demonstrating, to the satisfaction of staff members, certain standards of self-awareness, self-control, and self-motivation.
“I think everybody now realizes that the therapeutic part is so important to getting these young kids to make better decisions so they don’t graduate into the adult system,” said Capt. Steve Baynes, a 25-year Coast Guard veteran who conducted search-and-rescue operations after Hurricane Katrina and the 2010 Haitian earthquake and who now works as superintendent of New Beginnings.
“The easy thing is just to lock a kid up in his room, isolate him, and forget about him,” Baynes said. “The hard part is dealing with that youth when they are starting to ramp up, being able to talk that youth down and de-escalate them, and actually have them express feelings that they’ve never expressed before in their lives.”
Wrap-around services matter
Baynes recently returned from a three-day, two-night camping trip to a local park with six charges, all of whom had reached the top Level 6 in personal behavior, and eight staff from New Beginnings. The group went hiking, rock climbing, learned resume-writing and job-hunting skills during the day and held campfire rap sessions late into the night. It was a chance for the kids to let loose and to open up to staff, and for staff to learn more about the circumstances the kids would return to upon their release, so they could better plan for their re-entry into the community, Baynes said.
“A lot of people have told these kids, ‘You ain’t going to amount to nothing,’” Baynes continued. “All of them have so much potential, and it’s up to us to find out what their strengths are and build on those strengths.”
Ironically, such nurturing could add to the re-entry problems faced by young people who return to tough neighborhoods or to less-resourced facilities after completing their programs at New Beginnings, according to a couple of young detainees interviewed by Youth Today with the permission of DYRS.
“It’s like a camp ‘cos you get babied up,” said Adam*, 16, who has been at New Beginnings for nearly a year. A facility like this, he said, where people hugged you, cared about you and gave you things like soap and lotion, just wasn’t like the real world for a lot of people he knew.
Michael, 18, agreed. “It’s the only jail in the world where you can get yourself out of the program,” he said, referring to the six-level behavior system. A place like New Beginnings could lead some kids to expect that all correctional facilities were like a substitute for family, he said. “People who haven’t been nowhere else yet, they’re going to think they’re going to keep being able to do this.”
Both Adam and Michael said that although they were eager to go home because they had family waiting for them, they saw kids every day who didn’t want to advance up the level system because it would mean having to leave New Beginnings.
Some kids do act out in fear as they get closer to returning home, Baynes said. That’s why improving family involvement, and designing a robust community support strategy is so important for kids leaving the program to go back home, to school or to a job, he stressed.
Room for improvement
Advocates say that, for the most part, the District’s reforms are showing results, though there is lots of room for improvement. Arrests of young people in D.C. have declined by 15 percent between March 2009 and March 2012, according to police data analyzed by D.C. Lawyers for Youth. And since last year, arrests of young people already in the care of DYRS have fallen by 39 percent, and none have been involved in any homicides, DYRS Director Neil Stanley said in a written statement.
But definitive data to showcase outcomes from the reforms is hard to come by, said Liberman of the Urban Institute, who recently authored a report examining characteristics of youth placed as wards of the District from 2004 to 2011. Agencies don’t routinely share information with each other because of confidentiality fears, he said, and it’s hard to cross-compare data on young people who enter juvenile probation and those who become wards of DYRS, either entering New Beginnings or a community-based alternative.
“I am optimistic about the trends, but I can’t say definitively because I don’t think the data is out there,” Liberman said.
His Urban Institute report and an older one by the VERA Institute of Justice have identified several areas where DYRS needs to continue to work on reforms. Areas for improvement include planning for re-entry, creating performance measures, and finding local placements for kids in the care of DYRS, who can be sent to facilities as far away as California.
Other aspects of New Beginnings remain controversial. Butts of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, who said he has not visited the facility for two years, expressed disappointment at the administration’s decision to put up razor wire fencing around the facility. A well-managed therapeutic environment should not require physical controls, he said.
Others have criticized the 60-bed capacity as too limited, saying it endangers public safety by forcing youth who should be in a secure facility to remain in the community.
The three-year-old DYRS is continuing to build upon its reforms, including working to create a system to measure outcomes, a task made harder because of the lack of comparative data from the days of Oak Hill, according to agency staff.
Meanwhile, Oak Hill’s moldering brick facility has moved on. The 12-foot-tall barbed wire fence has been torn down, and its buildings are being cleaned and rehabilitated in preparation for next summer, when the National Guard plans to start using the old complex for a voluntary residential program for young people at risk of dropping out of school.
One day in September, Marco Taylor, 21, a recent graduate of New Beginnings, was among the crew dismantling the multi-tier concertina wire fence around Oak Hill. The work paid $100 per day and helped him stay out of trouble, Taylor said.
Spotting Baynes in the Oak Hill parking lot for a tour, Taylor came up to shake his former superintendent’s hand. The two men chatted for a few minutes. Then Taylor returned to work while Baynes settled into the car, looking pleased.
This was the kind of encounter, Baynes said, that made his job worth it: “Today is a good day.”
* Names have been changed for privacy, at the request of DYRS.
Kaukab Jhumra Smith is Youth Today’s Washington, D.C., correspondent.