Courtesy of King County

You are a burden. You are damaged and incomplete. You deserve to live with giant metallic spiders.

If the walls and furniture of the current King County Juvenile Detention Center could talk, that's what they'd say to the teens who spend time with them.

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On a recent tour of the facilities, I noticed that nearly every design element of the detention center speaks in the language of incarceration. The cement floors seemed to chill the air, artificial light took a hard bounce off the whitewashed walls, heavy doors locked with a clunk behind me. And yes, combination stool-and-table furniture bolted to the floor in the "housing units"—or, as they're more commonly called, cells—did resemble nightmarish arachnids.

Staff members and volunteers were quick to tell me the detention center contains no dedicated "programming space," so when organizations such as Pongo Publishing Teen Writing Project send in educators to teach the kids how to order the chaos of their lives with poetry, they have to do so in decommissioned cell blocks. Not the most conducive environment for creative thinking. It'd be like trying to administer chemo in a coffin.

But, as you likely know by now, King County voters approved a new juvie and courthouse building for approximately $210 million. Some call it the King County Children and Family Justice Center. Activists call it the new youth jail, and they're intent on stopping its construction. Whatever you call it, renderings released to me from HOK, the architectural firm in charge of designing the new center, reveal a juvie that looks more like a college campus than a correctional facility.

In the courthouse area, where all the administrative stuff takes place, the number and size of courtrooms has increased. Now, presumably, families engaged in legal battle won't have to stand literally shoulder to shoulder, as they sometimes do with the current setup. There's also a day care center, private rooms where victims or the accused can talk about sensitive issues with their respective lawyers, and an area where representatives from city services can guide parents and kids through a bunch of complex paperwork. There's even a cafe.

In the detention center, where all the jailing takes place, the new light-green and sky-blue color scheme calms the eye. Carpeting and soft furniture cuts down on the bad acoustics. Wood accents warm the common areas. Plans for paintings of natural scenes are in the works, as well as areas sectioned off for the kids to draw their own stuff.

Prison abolitionists, including activists opposed to this project, say the central problem with a juvenile detention center has nothing to do with design and architecture, but rather with incarcerating kids in the first place. Kids who commit violent crimes are, for the most part, acting out traumas they've experienced at home. Why traumatize the traumatized by locking them up? After all, national statistics indicate that time in juvenile detention increases both the dropout rate and the likelihood the kid will do time in adult prison. Why worry about which color to paint the cage we're building for a disproportionate number of black and brown children? Why spend millions on this building when we could be—and should be—spending millions more than the millions we're already spending on community-based programs such as Best Starts for Kids and the education levy? Immediately creating alternatives for youth incarceration and investing even more money in community programs is the least this county could do after plundering those already over-policed, over-imprisoned, and continually oppressed populations for generations.

Good points all. But the new cage looks like a forgone conclusion. (Last month, activists opposed to the jail won a partial victory when the city council voted to approve an ordinance forcing a hearing examiner to review a challenge to the building's permits.)

If the thing is going to be built, maybe it's worth considering its design. In fact, maybe the design could be so trauma-informed and the programming so communally involved that, eventually, we won't need to securely detain youths in King County at all? That is, maybe the jail can abolish itself?

After talking with HOK architect Gerry Guerrero, King County juvenile division director Pam Jones, and Dr. Eric Trupin at the University of Washington, a jail abolishing itself doesn't seem like such a wild idea.


HERE, KIDS! Sit on these spider knees and learn about poetry! Courtesy of King County

Plenty of behavioral science shows that use of certain colors, good acoustics, artwork, and lots of natural light creates an environment that improves one's mood and thus, at least with adults, improves relations between staff and the incarcerated. That kind of "evidence-based design," Guerrero said, informed his work on the Children and Family Justice Center's interior spaces.

While those features reduce stress levels for kids, Guerrero emphasizes that the environmental improvements also help staff. On my visit to the center back in April, the staff certainly had plenty of complaints about the current space. They talked about excessive heat, terrible air circulation, undrinkable water, leaky windows, low ceilings, and the general industrial blahness of their surroundings. Though the average stay for kids is 7 to 11 days, the staff has to spend years and years of their life trying to run programs in these conditions. What's bad for the staff is bad for the kids, too.

Behavioral scientist Dr. Eric Trupin agrees that programs would be more effectively facilitated in a nicer place. He said that juvies in Washington, DC, and California that have tried to implement certain programs in corrective environments make some progress, but added that "it's difficult to maintain motivation when you're in an environment that really communicates that you're not a valued person."

Richard Gold, director of Pongo, a teen writing program that's worked with the county since 1998, echoed Trupin's sentiment: "The writing offers the kids an opportunity to feel validated," he said. "Having an environment that validates the kids more as human beings would contribute to that."

Environmental improvements probably won't help much with fights, though, which are a major source of trauma that can keep kids in the system longer. According to juvenile division director Pam Jones, approximately 75 fights break out between the youths every year, and there are about 10 incidents per year where staff members are injured when trying to break them up.

Jones said most fights happen in the gymnasium and the school, which are the only two places where all the kids are together at once. In 2016, she counted 27 fights in the gym and 18 fights in the school. This year, so far, there's been 7 fights in the gym and 11 in the school.

A new coat of paint isn't going help that kind of thing—but building design might.

Instead of a centralized school, educational and therapeutic services will run in shared spaces between pairs of housing units. The gymnasium will be split into two parts: one for large muscle exercises such as basketball and another for mat exercises such as yoga. This setup reduces the number of large group situations where fights are more likely to break out, and it also gives administrators more control over which kids go where.

But violence also breaks out in the courthouse, where, according to Guerrero, circulation between public movement, staff movement, and detained youth movement is not as well defined as it should be. The new facility, he says, creates barriers so that "the public can't go to the detention side, and the youth have a secure path to court without crossing the public or judicial side."

The big thing is this: As population numbers decline, the new design allows housing units in the detention center to be converted into programming areas.

Dr. Trupin told me the units could transform into "aftercare" or "reentry" areas, places where kids who have recently been released can return to get further treatment or hook up with other services. Other cells could transform into transitional shelters for homeless youth, or even units to house kids who have been booked but who don't necessarily need to be securely housed.

At the request of County Executive Dow Constantine, acting no doubt under pressure from #NoNewYouthJail activists, Dr. Trupin is currently in the middle of leading a diverse committee composed of formally incarcerated youths, academics, law enforcement officers, public defenders, and others in a full review of the detention center's new design, programming, and use of funds. Setting clear expectations about when detention units can be converted into programming areas is one of the committee's major goals.

"We want to take seriously the move toward zero detention," he said. "We may never get there, but let's set some benchmarks for when you could start implementing these conversions."

More youth detention stories:

1. The Great Youth Detention Debate

2. What Will It Take to Stop Locking Up Kids?

3. Judge Roger Rogoff Has the Power to Change a Kid's Life. But Does He Have the Tools?

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4. Family Matters: First It Was a Jail Wing, Then It Became a Respite Center

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6. Can the New Youth Jail Render Itself Obsolete?