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An inside look at Sacramento’s Youth Detention Facility, named best in nation after turnaround

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Sacramento's Youth Detention Facility has gained fame for its progressive programs and methods. Two of the facility's chiefs speak about the facility's transformation over the past two decades on Friday, June 14, 2019.
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Sacramento's Youth Detention Facility has gained fame for its progressive programs and methods. Two of the facility's chiefs speak about the facility's transformation over the past two decades on Friday, June 14, 2019.

Six boys dove into the water, passing volleyballs and footballs, in a recent scene that seemed more like a snapshot from an afternoon at a community pool, rather than from Sacramento County’s Youth Detention Facility.

Only the barbed wire encircling the area showed the difference.

The frequent use of the pool, built along with the facility in 1963, is now part of a series of progressive, rehabilitative programs that contributed to the 2018 Barbara Allen-Hagen Award, which recognizes youth detention centers that display a heightened focus on positive outcomes rather than punishment.

Twenty-nine applications were submitted for the award, which was established in 2007. Sacramento’s facility won the highest honor over other finalists that included Cache Valley Youth Center in Utah and Florida Parishes Juvenile Detention Center in Louisiana.

Performance-based Standards, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit focused on improving juvenile correctional programs, hands out the awards each year.

The Youth Detention Facility now serves as an outstanding example of juvenile detentions throughout the nation.

“We’ve been used as an example of how improvement and change can be made,” said David Semon, division chief. “We’re referred to in other jurisdictions (as a role model). They say, you need to go and visit Sacramento.”

The Youth Detention Facility is about 10 miles from downtown Sacramento on Kiefer Bulevard, A brisk walk through it may surprise the first-time visitor. The walkway leading to the facility’s lobby features an art installation of delicate steel cranes strung up by thin cables.

Within the facility, resident-produced artwork decorates the hallways, and boys play a rowdy dodgeball game in the gymnasium, while the garden teems with ripening raspberries and blackberries.

The facility boasts two multi-sensory de-escalation rooms designed for relaxation and de-stressing sessions, and the music studio hosts excited residents experimenting with bass lines and chord progressions.

The Youth Detention Facility has not always been like this.

As late as 2010, it came under fire for claims of abuse in incidents stretching from 1998 to 2010, culminating in 24 former residents filing lawsuits.

According to The Sacramento Bee, civil rights attorney Mark Merin in the 2012 lawsuit said that his clients “were all injured, physically and emotionally, as a result of defendants’ policy, practice, and custom of subjecting juveniles in their care and custody to excessive force, deliberate indifference to serious medical and psychological needs, and conscience-shocking conduct.”

The lawsuit stated that facilities were “not being operated (in) a safe and supportive homelike environment, but instead (were) operated, in many respects, as a penal facility in which there existed a culture of violence that fostered staff-on-resident violence.”

The Bee reported Sacramento County settled the lawsuits by paying $475,000.

Increasing pressure from the series of lawsuits, state budget cuts and the intervention of several key organizations set the stage for a deep transformation within the walls of the Youth Detention Facility, according to Semon.

“We were forced to react and do things differently,” Semon said. “We took the opportunity to internally look at some of our private practices and make an effort to partner with Performance-based Standards, which has helped us streamline our goals and objectives.”

PbS has partnered with the facility for 11 years. Marlon Yarber, assistant chief for juvenile operations, said PbS has helped the facility shift toward a positive, rehabilitative approach.

“We’ve really moved beyond the more punitive approach, as we know it really doesn’t work very well,” Yarber said. “We’ve seen how that story ends.”

With the implementation of a series of new programs designed to improve the lives of the residents and monthly data reports, Yarber said the facility adopted a “much more trauma-informed, youth- and family-centered focus in the way we go about juvenile justice.”

Each month, the team at the facility generates a data report to track trends, and analyze the amount of time that residents spend in programs or in and out of their rooms, and the number of emergency incidents that involve the use of force.

“We sit down and look at those reports and discuss trends, and why certain things aren’t happening,” Semon said.

New programs that focus on self-improvement include an intramural sports league, gardening, the library, the pool, music classes and a culinary program in which guest speakers such as head chef of South restaurant N’Gina Guyton instructed residents on how to be employable in the restaurant business.

“The kids are interested in how much they can make,” Semon said. “She explained to them about salaries, tips and being a team member.”

Tucked within the facility are two multi-sensory de-escalation rooms, or MSDR, one called “The Cove” and the other “The Treehouse.” Valerie Clark, probation assistant, staffs “The Cove” during the week.

Clark said that MSDR is designed for residents who struggle with anger and stress, perhaps due to bad news after a court session or visit with a social worker. The resident engages in one-on-one sessions with Clark that range from 30 minutes to over an hour.

The darkened room is scented with essential oils and filled with plush cushions, simple games and de-stressing items such as “theraputty,” coloring books, stress balls and journals. The residents can vent their emotions to Clark, and leave with a sense of relief.

Clark sometimes wraps overly emotional residents in a weighted blanket.

“They are known to help reduce stress and anxiety, and it gets you that hug and feel-good feeling,” Clark said. “Some of our residents that are really struggling and crying everywhere, I wrap this around them, because sometimes they say they just want a hug and we can’t hug them.”

After the implementation of these programs in the past 10 years, Semon has witnessed several tangible results.

“We’ve experienced a decline in the use of force, and a decline in the time kids are in their rooms,” Semon said. “Our population has steadily declined so we’re not seeing the high numbers that we used to.”

Prior to 2009, the facility regularly housed 300 residents. Currently, 128 kids live in the facility, a nearly constant number for the past three years.

Juvenile crime has steadily been decreasing in Sacramento County, and throughout California as well. According to the California Sentencing Institute, 1,403 kids were arrested in the county 2009. In 2016, only 439 were arrested.

The program, according to Yarber, focuses on guiding kids to improve and mature during their time at the facility, and return to their communities as productive, positive members.

“You nurture something and see it grow, see how it gives back, and how it blossoms and blooms,” Yarber said.

Back at the pool, the boys accidentally splashed the supervising staff, resulting in joking admonitions. In the coming weekends, Semon said, the staff will bring out grills and barbecue with the kids.

Jose, 17, whose last name is being withheld because he is a minor, visits the pool twice a week with his unit.

“I come here really just to chill and play and have a good time,” he said.

His unit is one of two maximum security groups, for kids who have committed serious felonies, such as attempted murder, murder and sexual assault. These residents face longer stays. Most residents stay only 30 days, while those in maximum security may remain for years. Jose has lived at the facility for two years.

The smile on his face suggested carefree joy at being able to splash in the pool with his peers on a 90-degree afternoon.

Semon said many residents don’t know how to swim when they arrive at the facility. Regular swimming lessons not only contribute to the residents’ safety, but they can share their new skills with their family members in the future.

“Here’s something very positive they can take with them when they return to the community,” Yarber said.

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