Oak Hill Center Emptied and Its Baggage Left Behind

D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty traveled to Laurel today to official open the New Beginnings Youth Development Center, which replaces the troubled Oak Hill Correctional Facility. Video by Hamil Harris/The Washington Post
By Robert E. Pierre
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 29, 2009

The handwritten inscriptions in a stone garden inside the razor-wire gates of the Oak Hill Youth Center explain why thousands of the District's juveniles, since 1967, ended up behind bars. I wanted to belong. Too Many Narcotics. Wrong Place at the Wrong Time aka Loafing. I love the Hood Life. Did not Listen. On the Run.

Everybody at Oak Hill, it seemed, was running from something. The inmates from their decisions to rob, steal cars, sell drugs and kill. Corrections officers from a reputation as brutal overseers. The D.C. Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services from a past in which youths lived in squalor, were beaten and went home more violent than when they arrived.

Yesterday, the last inmates of the Laurel facility, about two dozen in all, boarded a bus for the half-mile journey to a new $46 million facility that resembles a small private college. The 30-acre campus has a landscaped courtyard, an airy library and lunchroom and windows everywhere. Huge, clunky cell keys have been replaced by electronic entry cards. Inmates have buzzers in their rooms that let them out automatically at night to use the restroom. Razor wire is history, along with the old name.

The new place is called New Beginnings Youth Center.

"This is the anti-prison," said Vincent N. Schiraldi, director of the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services. "What we had before was a training school for them to become adult inmates. We want them to aspire to college, to be in a place that looks like you care about them."

The facility officially opens today with a ceremony attended by Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) and marks a major milestone in the District's effort to move from a system based on punishment to a model that stresses therapy and rehabilitation.

Oak Hill, once known as the Pound or Little Lorton, was a major headache for D.C. mayors. In its heyday, it had 208 beds spread across 11 buildings. From January 1988 to January 1989, 319 youths were on runaway status, an additional 191 didn't return from weekend passes and 128 escaped.

It was violent. In 1989, an investigative panel found that staff members at Oak Hill and its annex had wounded or beaten juveniles with a brick, knife, chair, milk cartons and fists, causing broken teeth and noses, a dislocated shoulder, kidney injuries and eyes swollen shut.

Four years earlier, a counselor at the facility, using his full name, bragged to The Washington Post about using his forearm to strike a youth caught drinking during a football game: "I believe that was the first time I was able to knock a boy damn near out with his helmet on. I felt wonderful."

Schiraldi, brought in four years ago by then-Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), has been criticized by some in law enforcement who say he lets out violent youths too quickly, endangering the public.

Corrections officers -- now called youth development specialists -- have complained that the inmates now have more control than they do, fully aware that their punishment for acting out or striking an officer won't be harsh.

The facility has 60 available beds, and some fear that dangerous criminals might be released for sheer lack of space. But Kenny Barnes Sr., whose son was killed in 2001 by a youth who had run away from group homes under the city's care, said that troubled youths need a place that can help turn them into productive citizens.

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