Juvenile Facility Conversion 101

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Date: January 5, 2016

For many delinquent youth, juvenile detention centers are the last stop  in life of crime and unrest.  Until recently however, these facilities were treated more like adult jails; warehousing young violent and non-violent offenders, resulting in unemployment, delinquency, and a permanent life of crime.

Due to Juvenile Justice Reform, there has been a greater emphasis on rehabilitation rather than the dated lock-up approach. Community programs are geared more towards family involvement, education and special therapy for the youth who need it most. Only the harshest offenders are adjudicated to a secure residency program, and those facilities are designed with safety and rehabilitation in mind.

Best Practices for Juvenile Facility Conversion

Historically, juvenile facility designs were geared more towards containment, and did little to address the emotional and mental needs of the offender. Wide-open spaces built with steel, concrete and heavy building materials were the norm, which promoted aggressive behavior as youth postured for territorial control and dominance.

Studies show that the environment of the facility plays a key role in the rehabilitation of the offender which has fueled the need for Juvenile Justice Reform. As communities are demanding more effective Juvenile facilities, government officials are turning to strong architectural designs to assist in a successful and effective conversion to Juvenile Treatment Centers.


Best Practice 1: Conduct a Needs Analysis

Not every youth offender needs a secure custodial structure for rehabilitation and treatment. Many times, social agencies can treat the individual without compromising the safety of the community or court system.  Instead of creating facilities to only treat the offenders in residential programs, successful designs include areas to house programs for day treatment, day care, alternative education, , medical and mental health services, and family counseling services within the facility in order to serve more youth in the community.

In order to do so effectively, architects must sit down with the involved agencies in order to understand their needs and work flexible spaces within the design. This may be the addition of various program spaces, including gymnasiums, multi-purpose rooms, visiting areas; mental health and counseling offices, doctor’s offices, and day care centers separate from the secure residential program.

Since every community requires different resources, each juvenile treatment center should be designed to meet their specific needs. This way, the facility can be maximized by community groups that not only serve the youth in custody, but the overall community as well.


Best Practice 2: Design to Support the Operational Flow

After the community needs are explored, architects move on to understand the facility’s mission, method of resident management, staff-to-youth ratios and programming options within the building. It is also important to understand any special constraints, building code requirements or other limitations prior to creating a design.

The team will then move on to the schematic design process, where an initial floor plan will be proposed that supports the operational flow. Areas for administration such as staff offices, admission and control areas must be addressed, along with residential pods, educational areas and maintenance and storage spaces. The design will also include juvenile treatment and program spaces accessible to youth in the residential treatment program as well as community members, families and other juveniles. Care should be taken to provide multiple secure access points, sufficient circulation, and separation of various youth; all within the assigned space and renovation budget.


Best Practice 3: Design with Safety & Security in Mind

Safety is key for every residential program. When the perceived threat from outside or inside of the facility is gone, then territorial behavior decreases among the youth in custody.

Safety is typically addressed within the design in a variety of ways. Residential pods are designed implementing the provisions of the Prison Rape Prevention Act (PREA), with a safe mix of staff to youth ratios, and high levels of staff supervision as the main goal. Constant staff interaction helps increase the perception of a secure environment, along with security cameras and equipment present where the youth can easily see.

Security measures should also be addressed within access points, hallways and the surrounding perimeter of the facility. Designs that allow ease of staff supervision are the most successful since youth can be closely monitored within a safe environment.

Best Practice 4: Focus Designs on Normative Themes

Architectural designs geared towards a non-institutional environment are the most successful. Studies found that comfortable surroundings that represent that of a home, help to curb aggressive behavior, territorial posturing and negative responses to the offender’s surroundings.

When youth feel at home, they respond positively to programming, staff and rehabilitation efforts. Successful designs that support a residential environment include open spaces with natural light and outside views, decorations that accent and break up stark walls, sound absorbing materials with muted acoustics, secure access to the outdoors that promote freedom to move around, and flexible areas to allow access to positive programming all throughout the day.


Converting your Juvenile Justice Facility

If it is time to convert your juvenile justice facility to meet the specifications of Juvenile Justice Reform, choose an experienced architect who understands the operational considerations and best practices for a successful conversion.

Wakefield, Beasley & Associates has completed a wide variety of juvenile justice reform projects and fully understands the various constraints, limitations and challenges regarding a successful conversion.  Visit us at www.wakefieldbeasley.com for more information on where we can support your community.

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