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D.C. Leaders Tour New Beginnings Youth Center.

A memorial sits a block from the fence around the New Beginnings Youth Center. The center faced early difficulties when an inmate climbed over the fence Saturday and escaped.
A memorial sits a block from the fence around the New Beginnings Youth Center. The center faced early difficulties when an inmate climbed over the fence Saturday and escaped. (By Hamil Harris -- The Washington Post)
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By Hamil R. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 4, 2009

D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and other city officials were all smiles Friday as they toured the New Beginnings Youth Center, the $46 million facility in Laurel that replaced Oak Hill Youth Center, the city's crumbling and overcrowded correctional facility that had been plagued with problems for more than four decades.

"It is a little bit of an emotional day for all of us," said Vincent N. Schiraldi, director of the D.C. Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services, as he showed the mayor and news reporters around the 60-bed facility.

The facility contrasts starkly with the Oak Hill center, which was surrounded by razor wire at a Laurel site about 15 miles north of the District. "I have said a lot of bad things over the years about Oak Hill," Schiraldi said during the tour. "I said to my staff that I wouldn't kennel my dog in Oak Hill."

Opening the new center comes after years of criticism of the old facility.

"For at least 40 years, people have talked about closing Oak Hill and having a state-of-the-art youth development center," Fenty (D) said during a program before the tour.

New Beginnings resembles a college campus, with a gymnasium, football fields, a theater for dramatic productions, a library and computer-equipped classrooms. The young people sent there live in pods that house clusters of 10.

Over the weekend, razor wire was added to some sections of the fence around the center after a juvenile inmate scaled it Saturday evening and escaped.

While Fenty, construction company officials and more than a hundred other people marked the grand opening, Dexter Dunbar, superintendent of the center, said that although the environment is more pleasant and safer, the primary mission remains the same. "The biggest thing," he said, "is that we have to make sure that we reform youths to return to the community with a vision and intentions in life."

One New Beginnings resident with that goal is Leonte Butler, 18, who read a poem he had composed for the program. It summarized what many young people feel about being locked up. Butler later showed the mayor his room, where there is a chalkboard wall he uses to compose his thoughts.

"New Beginnings to me is like a fresh start," Butler read. "To make things right, everyone has to play their part. I have played my part so far, and I am ready to go home. I am ready to see people in person instead of talking over the phone. This campus we now have is pretty nice . . . but still, lockup is not what I want to be."

The facility is near a patch of land that serves as a reminder of the District's institutional approach to people with mental illness and disabilities in the past. About a block away from the north fence of the new facility is a large stone monument memorializing hundreds of unmarked graves that belong to children who died at the District-run Forest Haven facility between 1928 and 1982. Today the land where that center stood is an open field.

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