In nations that the United States would consider human rights violators, when people are detained, they are often subjected to what we would consider inhumane treatment. Treatment that in fact might pass the test for cruel and inhumane treatment, a concept of punishment banned by our constitution. The nature of their detainment clearly fits within the definition of punishment, and any concept of rehabilitation is left far behind. These detainees are dealt with in a way that is clearly meant to be a message of punishment and deterrence, for inmates that have been deemed too far removed from rehabilitative potential to be dealt with in way that would encourage that aspect of their lives. People too hardened, too drug addicted, too abused and too far gone to be cared for any further, just warehoused. The nature of the human warehousing is stark and bleak in its reality, one where any number of offenders are placed in environments where staying alive can be a challenge, let alone being prepared to be re-entered into society.
The nature of the ‘warehousing’ can include many conditions; rooms that are crowded with too many people, where any shred of privacy, respect or human treatment are completely obliterated; rooms with no light, no views to the outside, no concept of weather, night or day; rooms too hot or cold to be in, without any air ventilation or blankets; areas that have no supervision, where detainees can be regularly victimized by predators within these confines, extending sentences well beyond those intended by the courts; environments, where instead of rehabilitation, addiction recovery or education, the detainees get hard lessons in domination, brutality and advanced crime methodologies. Detainees in rooms stacked high with more people in them than they were designed for or could support in terms of light and air.
That is in fact true regarding the locales that one likely imagines when the concepts of abused human rights are discussed. But what if that description fit something that hit much closer to home, like right here in the United States? It is in fact true, and it is more widespread than we might imagine. For every story of coddled inmates that have unlimited access to cable television, the internet, state-of-the-art exercise facilities and high quality cuisine, the reality is that there are far more environments in operation today that more resemble the description of the Third World scenario indicated above.
So, one can say, these detainees have had a lifetime to walk a straight path, they have had many opportunities to get help, get clean, get educated, rise above it. That, in fact, might be true of adults that have been found guilty of multiple crimes and served multiple sentences. And, as thinking adults, one could draw a conclusion that many of these hardened criminals have shown that they cannot be redeemed, and society is wasting its resources to provide these people with anything more than the minimum that is required to carry on living. (Some may not, they may believe that every human life has value, and there is expiration date on people, the ability for rehabilitation is always there and always a possibility) But, there is the category that believes the former, and they have a legitimate right to that opinion.
Now, let’s take this a step further. Imagine a boy, or a girl, twelve years of age, or even younger. This child has existed in home environments where they have known little more than abuse, always in their hearts hoping for some connection with adults that can show these kids that they matter, that they have value, that there is meaning to them and that they have a future in this world. Children that know little or nothing of the kind of lives normal children live, holidays with loving parents, families and promises of a future that is bright and hopeful, one where their potential as human beings can be realized. Children whose ‘normal’ are parents, step-parents or other adults mired in their cycles of crime, addiction and abuse. Children whose traditions include violence, drugs and exploitation by the people they trust the most, the people that they cling to in hopes of receiving kindness, nurturing and value. These same kids, over time, learn many ways of coping with environments and people that they are exposed to. These may include turning to addiction themselves, crime, abuse, predatory behavior that gives them some kind of release from the world that they inhabit, a way to exert control in some way in a life that sorely lacks any stability or control. Some of these children have actually committed no crimes, save being difficult for the adults that are their caregivers to cope with them.
For some in the juvenile justice system, that is the reality. In fact, for too many, that is the reality. What has been described above is a far too common environment for children around our country. And, though a very hardship case has been described above, should older kids that have committed more serious crimes be treated in this same fashion?
Why is this happening in our country that was founded on a belief that all are created equal and none should be subjected to harsh punishment? Certainly, there are many, many reasons, not the least of which is a prevailing hardened attitude towards the kids that commit crime and the crimes that they commit. But, when one considers the general mission of facilities that house juvenile offenders, punishment and deterrence are only part of the equation. In the case of juveniles, other extremely important outcomes are rehabilitation, education, substance abuse treatment, counseling and intervention. In fact, in many of these kid’s lives, this may be the very best opportunity for positive intervention that they will encounter in their young lives. As an example, 20% of juveniles housed in America’s 591 detention centers are being held for delinquency, or delinquency is their core offense, hardly a serious crime requiring harsh segregation from society.
Given the desired outcomes that are expected of juvenile offenders in the United States, one of the key elements in success is the environment that they are exposed to and living in. The primary aspect of that environment is the facility, or facilities. As outlined above, far too many of these are inadequate for their mission and in fact rise close to level of cruel and inhuman punishment. How can it be expected, for example, that a kid detained for a crime will emerge from a facility with an enhanced opportunity for success when in fact they have been living in substandard, unsafe conditions where they have in fact had more exposure to more negative influences than positive?
Such are the many faceted issues one deals with when considering the appropriate response to housing juveniles today. That, coupled with fierce competition for dwindling public funds among many other priorities at government levels makes the issue even more acute. In fact, because of the limited resources, it is particularly more true that thoughtful, well considered solutions based on desired outcomes and evidence-based design are more and more important every day. Solutions that take into account the desired outcomes but also consider sustainable, best use of resources and efficient staffing, so that a facility may be useful for years to come and produce desired results.
The activity of planning and designing facilities such as occupy a small, but unique and vital role in the development of these facilities. Though when viewed as an overall project timeline, the amount of time we typically are involved in projects is a sliver, the impact we have on the facilities is highly significant. Projects are typically envisioned as a reaction to filling a need years ahead of when they are typically built, often as much as 5 years. During that time, the true genesis of the facility takes place and many important decisions are made; how many beds, what types of beds, where will it get built, how much will it cost, how many staff will be required, what it will it cost to run every year, what is it replacing or adding onto, and what might it look like. Sometimes, but not all the time, considerations are made for what impact this facility will have on the youth, families, staff, policy makers and the community at large.
In the planning of a facility, or the rehabilitation of one, much of it starts with the consideration of the basic unit of planning, the bedroom. This bedroom is basically an 8 x 10 box where a youth offender spends a great deal of their time every day, a space not totally unlike bedrooms that kids occupy everywhere. It serves as their sleeping space, their study space, private space, and it is the basic unit of planning that all other spaces revolve around. It is also an interesting space, as it is the common denominator between all juvenile facilities, old or new, progressive or not. Unlike most kids in this country, these ‘bedrooms’ house their occupants anywhere from 8 to 23 hours in a day, so their arrangement and equipment selection are crucial to their success as rooms to house troubled youth.
What is often in this 8 x 10 space is a fairly spartan arrangement, intentionally done that way more to preserve the safety of the occupant as opposed to being done in some type of punitive way. Suicide prevention and safety are the paramount concerns in housing these juveniles, and painstaking care is given to make certain that a juvenile cannot hurt others of injure themselves with the fixtures in the room. A study conducted in 2004 found that between 1995 and 1999 there were 110 juvenile suicides nationally, this figure does not represent attempts. Things that we often take for granted as fixtures in rooms we occupy can be dangerous, deadly devices in the hands of someone intent on hurting him or herself. Typically, the furnishings themselves are anchored hard to the floor or are extremely heavy. (It should be noted that these fixtures are often selected for their durability as well, as kids are very energetic and often act out, and furniture is a prime target of that energy) Beds and desks are either epoxy-coated steel, or a wood that can be easily sanded and refinished. Any fasteners of devices in the room must be tamper-resistant, as kids that have all day can easily take things apart, either out of curiosity or bent on destruction.
Further, common elements such as electrical outlets, light fixtures, air grilles and fire sprinklers are also outfitted for safety and maintenance durability. Screws are used that aren’t typical ones, but have holes or slots that can’t be turned without tools equipped with special bits. Light fixtures are typically made with a very heavy polycarbonate lens, that cannot be shattered and the lens is pressed tight to the metal enclosure. Light switches and outlets (if they have any) are made of highly durable materials that cannot be snapped apart and turned into weapons. Air grilles are constructed of very heavy steel, and made with very small openings. Even behind the openings can include a web of interwoven steel that makes it very difficult for youth to tie sheets or other materials to the grilles to potentially hang themselves. Ironically, kids will often defeat the purpose of the grilles, bringing in fresh air, by wadding up toilet paper, wetting it, and jamming the openings up, basically done out of boredom.
This leads us to the famous penal toilet, ubiquitously placed in the bedroom with the youth. One of the most common elements of a detention bedroom, for adults and youths, is the presence of a toilet in the room, with you. This is done for staff efficiency, but it’s one of the more problematic and expensive elements of these facilities. The toilets may be china; they may be separate from the sink. But often, they are cold stainless steel, with a toilet at the base and a lavatory and faucet at the top, all again arranged to maximize efficiency. However, the placement of these toilets creates numerous headaches for the staff that run these facilities. The ability to use water, toilet water, and the fact that pipes leading from toilets are an actual communication tool from one bedroom to another makes them favorite devices of youths everywhere. They often take out frustration or attempt to get attention by clogging their toilets with litter, plastic or even blankets and bed sheets. And kids have learned to use their bowls as containers to concoct all kinds of drinks and potions with the right combination of chemicals.
Next for consideration are the means for exiting and communications within the room. First, there is usually an intercom in the room, and it can be activated by pressing a button, or by a certain decibel level being reached. The decibel threshold exists in case a youth attempts to harm themselves or someone else during the night. This devise is a constant issue for staff. Setting the level too high means you won’t hear very much during the night, and a quiet kid can do a lot of damage in a short amount of time. Setting the level too low means the staff will pay little or no attention to what’s going on in the room because the intercoms are constantly going off, especially when toilets are flushed.
Doors are an extremely important element of these rooms. They must be built and equipped for high use and abusive behavior. Often steel, they typically don’t look very good after a few years as the kids carve into them with whatever means they can. Heavy wood doors can work under the right supervision, but can be susceptible to abuse. Doors come in a wide variety of configurations, from solid ones with small vision glass, to less solid with a great deal of glazing. Having stated this, there are still older facilities that still have bars, which is the worst of all scenarios. Solid doors provide a quieter, more hygienic environment, one where kids can’t scream and throw material at staff or other youths. Some doors, in higher security, have devices known as ‘cuff passes’. These passes allow staff to reach through the door and place cuffs on a youth before opening the door to bring them out. The ability to see you on their rooms is critical, as again, their safety and well-being is of paramount concern. This also presents an issue in the ability of youth to assimilate to their environment. Often, night lights are on all night, to facilitate staff’s ability to see into the cells. These lights make sleep difficult, and sleep deprivation can be a major factor in kids’ inability to adjust to their environment.
Another element of this that is key to the environment of the 8 x 10 is the window, and this is addressed in innumerable ways throughout the country. The most basic approach is a slit of 5” x 3’ that allows light in but is not wide enough for escape. 5” is the universal width for detention windows, considered general too large to get your head through, or to your shoulders through if you can get your head through it. This window may or may not lead to a view of something besides more than just more of the detention center, ideally, it can look towards an area that provides some visual stimulation, like woods or even an urban setting. Unfortunately, sometimes views are not part of the equation. As daylight is the minimum requirement, facilities have adopted many other means of providing daylight that include clerestories, skylights or daylight through the interior windows that comes from somewhere else within the facility. Sometimes, no daylight is provided. The rooms are typically at least 9 feet tall, often 10 feet tall, as there is an effort to move fixtures out of the reach of the youths, even if they stand on their beds or desks. Kids often like to try and hide contraband in the light fixtures above their beds, and a 10’ ceiling helps avoid that, though it adds to the institutional feel of the room.
The other finishes in the room are typically of a smooth nature, and painstaking detail is given to making the room as smooth and joint free as possible. Cracks and nooks and crannies are all potential hiding places for things, so often these rooms are built of smooth precast concrete or even steel. If concrete block is used, extra care is taken to smooth over any potential joints. The smoothness factor extends to all things in the room. The joints between the ceiling and walls, the floor and walls, all fixtures, are caulked tightly with a security grad caulk that that is stronger than concrete. Much care must be taken when installing this caulk, for it comes loose, it can be a very dangerous weapon. That is one reason that officers make routine inspections of rooms, looking for any unusual cracks, hidden objects, or contraband. The kid’s possessions are typically contained on a few shelves, or possibly in bins or wardrobes that are easily accessible by staff. If there are hooks in the room for clothing or towels, the hooks are made to collapse under heavy weight to minimize the opportunity for youths to hang themselves. Cells that do have outlets can accommodate radios or small TV’s, and occasionally TV cable is present, but that is typically considered a luxury and not included.
The ceilings and floors are typically quite bare, for a variety of reasons. Ceilings are high and solid, either steel or concrete. No acoustical treatment, no panels for moving to hide things. Floors are usually bare, sealed concrete. Sometimes, they may be covered in tile. Rarely, they have carpet. Carpet and carpet trim can be peeled from floors and walls and turned into weapons or can simply be targets for vandalism. In some cases, the bare floors have drains positioned in the center of the room.
In all, the contents and construction of these 8 x 10 rooms is very sturdy, vandal proof, and typically devoid of any warmth or comfort. Privacy is in short supply, and an environment for sleep is not promoted. For those that believe that the surroundings that youth offenders occupy should be modest and even harsh, these conditions seem ideal. Further, conditions that meet less then these standards are also embraced by a group that feels that these facilities should be oppressive and in fact punish their occupants. From that concept was borne the short-lived concept of youth boot camps, which envisioned turning miscreant youth into responsible, motivated young adults by forcing them rise at 5 am and be subjected to hard labor throughout the day and go to bed late to repeat the process again the next day, much the way the military breaks down new recruits to prepare them for duty.
The irony in all this is that studies indicate that the most effective way to assimilate youth, to move them in a different direction, is to place them in a normalized environment, one that more resembles what most of us occupy. Kids, and adults, placed in normative environments tend to react better to their environment, respect others, are under less stress and take to rehabilitation and counseling better. In fact, the more progressive, successful youth detention facilities follow the concept of normalized environment. It has been indicated that when youth are in a better environment, where the materials are closer to normal, where safety and security are more overt, kids tend to do better and their chances for success improve dramatically.
Due to budgetary constraints, many rooms are double bunked. The bunks are typically arranged one over the other. The staff tries to make the effort to pair kids in compatible ways, similar ages, temperaments, other factors. This can work out well, especially with kids that may need additional close supervision. Kids at risk for suicide attempts often benefit from having a room mate, someone besides staff that can keep an eye on them or be a sympathetic ear. On the other hand, some kids are susceptible to bad influence, and the fact that they are in a confined space with one other person without other supervision can be an issue. The kids in the subordinate position can come out with more self-esteem issues, more victim issues. The youth in the superior position can have their bullying tendencies reinforced. Often, today, staff believes that two kids are probably the wrong number in a confined space. They prefer one, three or four. Three tends to equalize things, there are less assaults and less intimidation.
Concerning the basic unit of living, the 8 x 10 room, one of the very important decisions is….how many should live in there? In a room that size, you can accommodate one or two. Beyond that, the room must get much larger. Some youth live in dormitory conditions, which has mixed results. But for the purposes of the 8 x 10 unit, let’s stick to that scenario. Kids generally prefer to have a room to themselves, as most kids do. This provides them with privacy, security, a sense of their own place, all elements essential to improved mental health and rehabilitation.