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D.C.'s Juvenile Justice, Then And Now

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Courtesy of Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services

Since the first American juvenile court was established in the late 1800s, the U.S. judicial approach to dealing with teens in trouble has swung from progressive to punitive and back again. But in many places, including D.C., the transition hasn't been easy.

The idea of a youth prison doesn't typically conjure images of an inviting building with a private movie theater and gym. But New Beginnings Youth Detention Facility in woodsy Laurel, Md. is a different kind of youth prison — one built on the philosophy that young offenders need a positive environment to change.

New Beginnings is the main facility operated by the District's Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services, a 60-bed rehabilitation center that opened in 2010, and it's at the center of D.C.'s shifting philosophy on how to treat juvenile offenders.

"Giving the youth an opportunity to figure out what is it that they have an interest in," says Lashan Beamon, communications director for the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services, of the center's philosophy. The center aims to give young offenders the tools they'll need to be come successful adults, she says. 

Oak Hill represents juvenile justice's past

It wasn't always the case, as a tour of the District's former juvenile detention facility, Oak Hill, makes clear. The facility, which closed in 2009, was notorious for its hard knocks treatment of inmates. Layers of barbed wire, high fences and cinder block walls create an intimidating precents. Beamon enters the facility through heavy steel doors.

"So very cold, very eerie. Steel doors," says Beamon. "There's definitely an energy that you can feel when you enter the grounds. One that makes you question, you know, humanity."

It’s a lesson that hits close to home for one of the visitors on today’s tour. As a teenager, Michael Kemp did several stints here at oak hill. Now he's a 22-year-old with short dreads and an easy smile. 

"Damn, this is crazy being in this room, man. My room was back down that way," he says. 

Kemp points to a series of holes chiseled into the walls between the cells. They were made by prisoners trying to talk to each other, he says. They would use anything they could find to try to chisel through the wall, he says, making a scraping motion and sound. 

Rocky transition to more progressive program 

There's no doubt that D.C.'s youth prison philosophy has changed a lot since Kemp served time at Oak Hill. The transition to the new system was rough for both staff and residents, says D.C.  Council member Jim Graham, chairman of the council's human services committee, which oversees New Beginnings. Security issues were one problem; there were three escapes by residents within the first two years it was open, forcing the facility to double the guards on the overnight shifts. 

"When I came into this chairmanship, the locks on the doors at New Beginnings weren't working, they were popping open," he says. "We had a number of critical violent incidents in terms youth violence on youth. Youth violence on staff was very very high. In my opinion, intolerably so." 

Today there are fewer incidents at New Beginnings, but there's still room for improvement. Graham wants the District to do a better job of addressing young peoples' underlying issues, such as substance abuse. 

"If you're comparing it to Oak Hill you say, 'oh my God this is a great achievement,'" Graham says. "But if we're comparing it to what is needed, in terms of turning lives around, ah, we fall short of that mark. But I think, we're getting there."

New Beginnings ... new ability to heal?

On the same day as his visit to Oak Hill, Kemp got a chance to see the New Beginnings facility.

"Yeah this looks different, man, this place looks crazy," he says. "It don't look like a prison, man, it look like, it look like a little campus or something." 

Kemp spoke to a current resident, who showed him around one of the building's small, dorm-like rooms.

"See this is a totally new setup they got here," Kemp says. "Hey, you get to open that window, or do they open it for you?" The residents have permission to open windows themselves, the resident says.

More than the fresh air, Kemp wishes he had had access to the services available for the youth at New Beginnings: counseling services, music writing, and education programs."

"I always think like, if I didn't learn this crime and I would have learned this trade, maybe my life would have turned out a whole lot different," he says. 

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This story was produced by the juvenile justice desk of Youth Radio

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