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Olathe, Kansas is a suburb of Kansas City, but with its own unique issues. The Juvenile Detention center is divided into two parts, the older institution and a newer, LEED platinum certified facility across the street. I visited Olathe last month and photographed at both facilities.

The older facility is divided into pods, two levels, with architecture you would expect after viewing any recent TV movie with punishment as a subject. Cells with metal doors, some with pass through traps, small windows, concrete floors, cot-like beds, steel sinks and toilets. The cells are eight feet by 10 feet.  The day room has round steel tables with four or six round fixed stools. You can close you eyes and you know these spaces. You have seen them.

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Across the street is a different world. Eventually, if things go as planned, the population will get smaller and the entire group of less than 80 will be moved to the newer facility. Right now, it is divided between those that have earned the right to be in the new space, and those that have yet to earn or have lost the privilege. The new spaces are doubles, with wooden beds, large windows and carpet. The feel here is more of a dorm rather than a cell. The day rooms are large and airy with a big, colorful sculptural element that unites the spaces.

The director of the center is a former warden of an adult facility. He put in 25 years dealing with adults before he was brought into the world of juveniles– which he describes as finding his true calling. There are many issues on the table that he deals with. The director is faced with the fact that he “doesn’t control his front door.” His responsibility is making sure the kids are safe and secure and available when called by the judicial or law enforcement system. He must protect the kids from themselves, others and make sure they are not damaged by their stay.

His line officers (Juvenile Corrections Officers or JCOs) all wear SWAT type uniforms– heavy cotton, multiple pockets and heavily equipped belts. When asked the time, the JCO might respond 21:30 rather than half past nine. The director claims that while you can change architecture rather quickly, it takes far more time to change a culture. He discusses trying to have a casual Friday, or bring in polo shirts with the institution name to give out, but the staff is resistant. He points out that to implement change, you have to get “buy in” from every level. It is an organic process that takes time to reverse from where it has been.

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The LEED certified building is beautiful but depends on its heating system with a certain population of staff. With reduced population of kids and a smaller staff, the building doesn’t function quite as well as designed.

It takes time, but Kansas, in the midst of a very conservative state government and social structure, is working hard to change to a system that results in a less punitive and more positive outcome for the kids. In the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child it says, “Mankind owes to the child the best it has to give.” Although the United States has not yet signed this convention, here in Olathe it is a deeply ingrained philosophy.

Over the course of the next few weeks we will bring you inside both facilities, with photographs and stories from more than 15 children. Stay tuned.

3 thoughts on “Changing confinement culture in Olathe, Kansas

  1. A note, I believe “Romeo and Juliet laws” usually refer to laws that LESSEN the punishment for consensual sexual relationships when both parties are teens and/or within a few years of each other in age. It varies by jurisdiction but such laws may make the offense a misdemeanor rather than a felony, not require registration as a sexual offender, or flat out make it an exclusion to the definition of statutory rape. Laws that prohibit 16 year olds from having sex with 15 year olds are just plain old statutory rape laws.

  2. And on a second note after finishing the article, I think this is a small but very hopeful start to making the American justice system a little bit more humane. I agree its impressive that this is happening in a very conservative part of the country, and I’d be very interested to see how the director’s attempts at changing the culture of the institution progress.

  3. Thanks for the feedback Nancy. You are indeed correct– we misunderstood the law. Also, yes, we definitely see the Director’s efforts, and the general direction of the system he is working within, as movement in a positive direction.

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