10/26/2012 04:57 pm ET Updated Dec 26, 2012

D.C.'s Experiment To Reform Youth Incarceration

This story also aired on WAMU-FM.

By Anne Hoffman

Since the first juvenile court was established in the late 1800s, the U.S. judicial system has been trying to decide the best way to deal with teens in trouble. Over the years, the pendulum has swung from progressive to punitive and back again. This summer, the US Supreme court struck down life sentences for juveniles, reversing much of the “tough on crime” stance that dominated the 80's and 90's. But in many places, including D.C., the community is still adapting from the old system.

When you think of a youth prison, you probably don’t picture an inviting building with a private movie theater and gym. But New Beginnings Youth Detention Facility in Woodsy Laurel, Maryland is a different kind of youth prison, one built on the philosophy that young offenders need a positive environment to change.

“Giving the youth an opportunity to figure out what is it that they, you know, have an interest in?” said Lashon Beamon, the Communications Director for the district’s Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services. She says that the center is about giving young offenders the tools they’ll need to become successful adults.

But that wasn’t always D.C.’s philosophy.

We tagged along as Beaman gave a tour of the district’s old juvenile facility, Oak Hill. The facility, which closed in 2009, was notorious for its hard knocks treatment of inmates -- fighting, sexual assault, rodent infestations and plumbing problems.

“There’s definitely an energy that you can feel when you enter the grounds. It’s one that makes you question, you know, humanity and how we treat our youth,” she said as she walked through the facility.

It’s a lesson that hits close to home for one of the visitors on the 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,” said Kemp.

Kemp walked cautiously through the abandoned, unlit prison. He finally stops by the solitary confinement areas. They are poorly insulated rooms, about nine by nince feet. He points to a series of holes chiseled into the walls between the cells. He says they were made by prisoners trying to talk to each other.

What did prisoners use to chisel?

“Anything you could find. Just chicka chicka chicka chicka,” said Kemp.

There’s no doubt that D.C.’s youth prison philosophy has changed a lot since Kemp served time at Oak Hill. D.C. councilmember Jim Graham is chairman of the city’s Human Services Committee, which oversees New Beginnings. He says the transition to the new system was rough for both staff and residents

“When I came into this chairmanship, the locks on the doors at new beginnings weren’t working, they were popping open. 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,” said Graham.

Today there are fewer incidents at New Beginnings, but there’s still room for improvement. Graham says the district could do a better job of addressing the kids’ underlying issues, like substance abuse.

“If you’re comparing it to Oak Hill you say, ‘Oh my God, this is a great achievement.’ But if we’re comparing it to what is needed, in terms of turning lives around, we fall short of that mark. But I think, we’re getting there,” said Graham.

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. It don’t look like a prison, man, it look like, it look like a little campus or something,” he said.

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 set-up they got here. Hey, you get to open that window, or do they open it for you?” asked Kemp.

“No, I open it by myself,” said the resident.

More than fresh air, Kemp says he 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,” said Kemp.


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