Behind Oak Hill's Fences, Violence and Uncertainty
Receivership, Shutdown Among Center's Options
By Theola Labbé
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 2, 2004; Page B01
Inside unit 9B at Oak Hill Youth Center, the city's juvenile detention facility and jail, the officers assembled 20 young men for a pep talk.
"Let's go! Put your shoes on," a tall, burly officer yelled to a group of sullen 15- to 19-year-olds on a recent morning. Among them were gun-toting cocaine and heroin dealers, marijuana and PCP users, car thieves and vandals. They had spent time inside before -- about three of every four were repeat offenders.
The pep talk began. The officer who moments before had chided the youths to dress quickly spoke in a voice oozing concern.
Sunlight barely penetrated a thick plexiglass window. The officer announced he was glad to be alive and thankful he had a job.
"What is your goal today?" the officer asked. "What is your goal for when you leave here?" His questions were met with silence.
For 18 years, the District has been embroiled in a costly legal and political battle over its treatment of young delinquents. A 1986 consent decree, which came out of the lawsuit Jerry M. v. the District of Columbia, detailed how the city should operate a juvenile facility. But in the years since, the city has paid nearly $3 million in court fines for its dereliction.
As a result, Oak Hill's 11 single-story buildings have come to represent a bricks-and-mortar failure of juvenile justice policy in the District. And after nearly two decades, its future is as uncertain as the lives of the young people in it.
In another and perhaps final attempt at reform, the District and lawyers who represent juveniles agreed in May to work with an arbiter, Grace M. Lopes. Her first report, released last week, noted that overcrowding has been a problem this summer, and it set a Nov. 15 deadline for city officials to submit a plan to fix Oak Hill. If the deadline is not met, Lopes can ask a D.C. Superior Court judge to appoint a receiver to take over the center.
Meanwhile, Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) has said he wants to close Oak Hill. Members of the D.C. Council and Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio) also have pushed to close the facility.
For juveniles awaiting trial, the city plans to open an 80-bed detention center in Northeast this fall. But no one has offered an alternative for the roughly 800 juveniles sent to Oak Hill each year.
Crimes Dictate Activities
Young men walked in straight lines, arms behind their backs, one hand grabbing the opposite arm at the wrist. They moved between the 1967-era buildings encircled by a 12-foot high fence topped with loops of razor wire. The city used to operate the minimum-security Cedar Knoll Youth Detention Center on the same grounds in Laurel but closed it in 1993 after years of controversy.
Oak Hill officials recently allowed a reporter to take two separate, supervised tours and also permitted unmonitored interviews with Oak Hill staff members. Juveniles could be interviewed only in the presence of a supervisor and not identified by name.
Their crimes dictate the color of the shirts the juveniles wear, the classes they take at Oak Hill Academy, the on-site school and the cottage in which they sleep and shower.
The young men in purple polo shirts were high-risk offenders. Those in gray were scheduled to go home within 30 days. One officer stood in front of each group of teenagers, all boys, and another guarded the rear.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company