Mayor Vows 'Nurturing' at Oak Hill

By Nia-Malika Henderson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 9, 2005

D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams said yesterday that the city is moving forward with plans to overhaul its long-troubled juvenile detention center in Laurel by creating smaller facilities to give youths more attention and care.

Williams (D) visited the Oak Hill Youth Center, a place that he said had become "a symbol and an icon in a way that we don't want." For nearly two decades, the 800-acre complex has been plagued with complaints about bad management, poor living conditions, drug activities and other problems.

The mayor and D.C. Council agreed last year on a plan to close Oak Hill within four years and replace it with smaller facilities that meet national standards. The plan outlined by Williams and other officials yesterday does not call for abandoning Oak Hill entirely; it calls for transforming the campus.

"A new Oak Hill will be part of a revitalized system . . . of nurturing and support for our youth," Williams declared.

Officials said they will replace Oak Hill's aging buildings, which now house about 150 youths in large, jail-like settings. Two existing units will be refurbished, and three more units will be built to house youths in smaller settings.

Oak Hill now houses a mix of youths who are committed for various offenses as well as those awaiting trial. Under the new system, Oak Hill will house only those youths who are committed, officials said. Youths who are awaiting trial will be moved to the Youth Services Center, an 80-bed facility in Northeast Washington, they said.

Officials said they expect to complete the changes within two years. Some details remain unclear, and no budget has been set.

Vincent Schiraldi, director of the District's Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services, said that the city also intends to build a gymnasium and cafeteria at Oak Hill. The new living quarters there will be more like a dorm and less like a jail, he said. The smaller facility will have a higher staff-youth ratio, will offer counseling and will emphasize programming not punishment.

Williams cited a reduction in juvenile crime -- particularly car thefts -- as a sign of other strides in the treatment and rehabilitation of youth offenders. Over the last six months, the city, which decides where and for how long most juveniles are held, has seen a 40 percent reduction in Oak Hill's committed population, officials said.

D.C. officials said they are patterning the changes after a model put into place in the 1980s by Missouri, a state that has won acclaim for reducing the recidivism rate among juvenile offenders.

During a tour yesterday of one of Oak Hill's housing units, Schiraldi noted the institutionalized look of the rooms, furnished with metal beds and bookcases.

"In Missouri, they don't live on metal beds. They have pillows, rugs on the floor and books in the room," he said. "In Missouri, they are running the system so well that if a kid is on drugs, they know right away."

Khalil Lee, 20, a resident who has been in and out of Oak Hill since he was 12, took part in Schiraldi's tour. Lee, who has been in trouble for gun charges and other offenses, said that Oak Hill is now a "revolving door," adding: "If you come down here now, you're not rehabilitated. Then you go back out there, and it's like they set you up for failure."


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