Detention Centers:

Staunton, Va. — When Superintendent Tim Smith goes to work every day at the Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Detention Center here, the layout of the building is the furthest thing from his mind.

That’s about the highest compliment you can pay to the design of a secure juvenile facility. For when it comes to design, success is generally determined not by an abundance of compliments, but by an absence of complaints.

In Middletown, Conn., on the other hand, Don DeVore enjoys no such silence. The state’s juvenile justice director oversees a four-year-old detention center that the governor has declared unusable, and that is being emptied of all kids.

The Shenandoah Valley center is a $9.5 million, 55-bed model. The Connecticut Juvenile Training School is a $57 million, 240-bed mistake that could have been avoided.

Their different fates can be attributed largely to how they were created.

The headaches over Shenandoah Valley’s details were tackled when it was a work in progress. Smith brought everyone into the process – staff, juvenile justice administrators, architects and consultants – and obsessed over every piece of the place until it opened after almost eight years of planning.

Connecticut’s training school suffered no such labor pains. Declared a necessity after a crisis in 1998, it was fast-tracked into existence in three years.

The facilities stand today as opposite examples of how planning and design can help determine the success of juvenile detention facilities. It is a lesson often unheeded in juvenile corrections construction, say experts in the design of pre- and post-adjudication facilities.

“The average cost to construct a detention facility, per bed, is $130,000 to $180,000. It’s one of the most expensive costs to county or state that there is,” says Earl Dunlap, executive director of the National Juvenile Detention Association.

“The greatest mistake is that a facility will be built with no idea of what kinds of programs and services are going to be in it, which dictates every aspect of design.”

The lessons of design have been learned the hard way in some places. Florida built a $7.9 million maximum security facility for girls in the mid-1990s but closed it last year, admitting that the very concept was flawed. (See “End of an Error,” October 2005.) Maryland completed its Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center in 2003, and in less than a year agreed to numerous design and program improvements to rectify what a state public defender called “unsafe and inhumane” conditions. Mark Soler, former executive director of the Youth Law Center, said he saw the flaws – including inadequate educational and recreational facilities – the first time he got a tour.

To be sure, detention centers and training schools function differently. But the lessons of Shenandoah Valley and the Connecticut training school demonstrate how the politics of planning can spell success or failure for either one.

Shenandoah: A Slow, Inclusive Process

When he became superintendent of Shenandoah Valley 10 years ago, Smith might have seemed to be an unlikely person to usher in the creation of a state-of-the-art juvenile detention facility. “I didn’t have any background in juvenile justice,” he says. “I spent 24 years as vice president of a department store chain.”

Smith inherited the Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Detention Home, a 32-bed facility that the Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Detention Center Commission, which hired him, was looking to replace. Smith came in to apply a business mind to planning a cost-effective facility that could provide high-quality programs.

One key to the process was that Smith and the commission, which includes leaders from six cities and counties, had to work through Virginia’s Board of Juvenile Justice. That’s a group of seven youth advocates, each appointed to four-year terms, whose members are frequently more senior than the governor’s own staff, because the state imposes a one-term limit on its governors.

“There’s a real safeguard there,” says former American Correctional Association President Charles Kehoe, who has overseen the juvenile justice departments in Maryland and Virginia. Amid changes in governors and administrators, he says, “the standards and the board stand as a common thread.”

In 1998, the board approved the needs assessment for a new facility, then checked off on a planning study. The study was done by Moseley Architects, which the detention commission later chose from among six bidders to design the facility for $550,000.

Smith, however, did not leave all the ideas up to Moseley.

Seeking Best Practices

Smith’s general philosophy about the ideal facility was simple: “You don’t want them scared, and you don’t want them thinking they’re on vacation,” he says of the kids.

To figure out the details, Smith set out to learn the best practices for building juvenile detention facilities. A big step was winning a U.S. Justice Department grant that funded two trips to a facility planning school at the National Institute of Corrections in Longmont, Colo.

Going with Smith on the first trip were his assistant; a Moseley staff member; the state’s deputy state juvenile justice director, Dave Marsden; and several county officials. Smith sent virtually his entire administrative staff to the second training session, which was about transitioning from an old to a new facility.

Smith says the training convinced him and his planners to go with a pod system for the living spaces rather than the old building’s long corridors of cells. “It allows for better classification of the kids,” he says. “You can keep the bigger ones from the smaller or younger ones, and everybody’s safer.”

When the facility opened in September 2004, it included other concepts embraced by many juvenile justice advocates:

Small size, large capacity: The center has 55 beds (about 30 are usually in use, Smith says), but was designed to easily add 33 more beds with another wing.

When it comes to juvenile justice construction, all issues take a back seat to size. The prevailing opinion: the smaller, the better. The American Correctional Association (ACA) recommends that facilities include no more than 150 beds, and that each living unit have no more than 20 beds.

But Kehoe laments that because legislators ultimately hold the power and the purse strings in states, “They continue to say, ‘We’re going to build a 500-bed facility, forget what ACA says.’ Because if you look at the cost, it’s cheaper to build a 500-bed building than it is to build two or three smaller ones.”

Room for the unexpected: Shenandoah was built with six extra rooms for whatever services Smith and his staff could secure money to provide. He says they’re almost all full now.

Their occupants include a full-time mental health worker, a full-time clinician and a part-time psychiatrist, all funded by the state’s Department of Criminal Justice Services. The old detention home had to refer at least one youth per month to other facilities for mental health services. The new facility has referred only one since it opened.

Thanks to a grant from Virginia’s share of funding from the federal No Child Left Behind Act, Shenandoah is the only detention center in the state with a full-time substance abuse counselor.

Decreasing costs: Shenandoah became the first detention center in the country to use a “green” approach to its operating systems, according to Kehoe. Smith chose air-compressed doors over electronic locks; 50-year linoleum floors over 25-year vinyl; white, heat-deflecting roofing; and sensor-activated, low-energy lighting. He eschewed a standard boiler room for a geothermal heating and cooling system, which controls water temperature by using hundreds of tanks sunk 300 feet into the ground.

Such choices meant larger investments up front. The heating system alone runs about $250,000 more than standard systems, and it put the center over its projected $9 million cost. “But it pays for itself after a minimum of five or a maximum of seven years,” Smith contends.

Long-term financial planning is a component long overlooked in the field, Kehoe says: “Construction costs are substantial, but they are a drop in the bucket when it comes to the big picture of such facilities. If you assume a facility will operate for at least 25 to 30 years, up to 90 percent [of the cost] will be in staffing and operating the facility.”

Smith and the commission held down costs by managing the project rather than hiring a general contractor. “We oversaw deals with 32 different trades,” he says.

That meant a lot of 60-hour workweeks. “It wasn’t a lot of fun,” Smith says.

Great Imperfections

The improvement over the old facility is significant. One of the main problems with the former center was that guards were continually thwarting escape attempts, a product of many blind spots. Now, says Smith, youth “don’t even bother trying. It doesn’t have zero blind spots, but it has a minimum.”

Other dramatic improvements include larger and more advanced classroom and recreation space.
Not that the center is perfect. “The health clinic is far away from the pods where detainees stay,” Smith laments. “The architect insisted on that, thinking most clinic work would happen on intake. I’d put it right in the middle, if I could do it again.”

He won’t, because Shenandoah will be around for many years.

Connecticut: A Scramble With Little Oversight 

Jeanne Milstein saw the Connecticut Juvenile Training School coming and going.

She was asked to help shepherd the facility’s construction as director of government relations for the Department of Children and Families, when everyone agreed that the old detention center had to go. Years later, as the state’s court-appointed child advocate, she documented the new facility’s rapid demise.

Connecticut’s push for a new training school was the opposite of Shenandoah’s methodical approach. A 1998 suicide at the Long Lane School, the state’s old training school (also located in Middletown), sparked an outcry for a new facility. Advocates and legislators had long criticized the 125-year-old building as outdated and unsafe.

“They wanted to build a new facility very quickly,” Milstein says. She says the state child and family services commissioner, Kristine Ragaglia, soon set on the Marion Juvenile Corrections Center in Ohio as her model.

Many onloookers found it strange that Ragaglia chose Ohio’s maximum-security facility, which held the most troublesome of the state’s older juveniles. The Connecticut version would feature 240 solitary cells.

“Many of us had concerns that it was modeled after a facility for kids that are between 18 and 21, when our juvenile justice system only goes up to age 16,” Milstein recalls. What’s more, she says, most of the detained youth in Connecticut “are abused or neglected. A lot of the kids run away, and then have violated court orders not to run away.”

Ragaglia declined to comment on why the state insisted on a maximum-security building.

Objections Ignored

The bill to approve $27.5 million for the training school passed the state legislature in May 1999 – the final price tag was $57 million – but not without concerns about planning from members of the legislature.

“I was in the legislature for 26 years,” says former state Rep. Richard Tulisano (D). In economically difficult years, he says, the first thing legislators cut is “funding for programming. So why are we building a facility which by nature will keep people in for long time without ensuring a funding source” for its services?

Normally, the state Department of Public Works oversees any state construction project valued at more than $100,000. But because of the desire for speed, the legislature let Gov. John Rowland (R) name his own point man to oversee construction. He chose Nicholas Cioffi, a retired superior court judge with no construction planning experience but “a reputation for getting things done,” as he said of himself to The New York Times in 2004.

But the Youth Law Center and the National Juvenile Detention Association – which assessed the plans for a new training school, at the state’s request, through a U.S. Department of Justice grant – raised questions.

The group presented its results to Cioffi and his staff. Finding that most of Long Lane’s residents were low-level offenders, “I told them the data doesn’t support the size of the [newly planned] facility,” recalls Paul DeMuro, then an independent contractor who led the assessment team. The group recommended forgoing a large facility for two smaller sites.

The response shocked DeMuro, now a senior consultant for the Annie E. Casey Foundation. “I have never had anybody get as angry with me as this judge Cioffi,” he says. “When we didn’t rubber-stamp [the training school plan], he went ballistic.”

Cioffi approved the plan for the large facility, and five companies bid on the construction contract. A selection committee, including Cioffi, chose the Tomasso Group, a Connecticut firm whose construction division lists no history of justice-related projects.

The facility opened in August 2001. But by the time Shenandoah opened in 2004, the end had already drawn nigh for Connecticut’s training school.

Early Trouble

Within three months of the start of operations, people were questioning the training school’s programs, saying it was doing little, if anything, to rehabilitate youth.

Milstein had become the state’s child advocate, and in 2002 filed a report with the state attorney general blasting the facility, known by its acronym, CJTS. A follow-up report by Milstein two years later found little improvement. Among the findings of the reports:

• “There is insufficient space at CJTS for therapy and insufficient space for clinicians to meet with youth”
• “Recreation often gets canceled. … Recreational opportunities are inconsistent among units.”
• “CJTS looks and feels like a prison, notwithstanding the oft-repeated vision at its opening that CJTS would be a state-of-the-art center for rehabilitation.”

Also in 2002, Ragaglia told the Hartford Courant that the training school “probably would not get a state license if it were privately run.”

The pressure continued, with negative press coverage, incidents of abuse and complaints from lawmakers. A group called Youth Rights Media, which included people who had been housed at the training school, released a video called “CJT$: At What Cost?” in 2004. It documented problems with the facility and included footage of guards brutally restraining one youth.

At the recommendation of her own director of juvenile justice, Don DeVore, Connecticut Gov. Jodi Rell (R) announced last August that the training school would be shut by 2008.

Built to Fail

“The fundamental reason why CJTS failed is because of a lack of program vision and clear expectations,” Milstein says.

The design and construction “had some role in the failure,” she says. “It’s a prison-like environment, just looking at the fence, the doors locking and clanking. The rooms are like cells in a maximum-security prison.”

It’s impossible to say whether a contractor with more experience would have done things differently. It was the state leaders who decided to emulate the Ohio facility. But it is worth noting that former governor Rowland, who recently finished a 10-month jail term after pleading guilty to corruption charges, admitted to steering the contract Tomasso’s way.

According to statements made in guilty pleas by former staffers for Rowland and Tomasso, the construction company got insider information that the Ohio facility would be used as a model, then hired the architect and project manager of that facility to draw up its own winning proposal.

After Rell became governor in July 2004, she brought in DeVore to improve the programs at the training school. He had spent the previous eight years as a court-appointed monitor overseeing Connecticut’s juvenile justice system, and before that developed juvenile justice program philosophies and population projections for states and counties as a consultant to architectural firms.

Services have improved, says DeVore, the state’s director of juvenile justice services. But he says the center “was built as a prison. It will always be a prison. We’ll never get the kind of treatment model we want, as long as it’s operating.”

Further, DeVore says, with its design for high security and a large population, the center employs nearly 400 people and costs $32 million a year to operate. In a report this summer, DeVore estimated the center’s annual cost per resident at $365,845.

The lessons of the training school do not appear to be lost. A proposal last year for a detention center in Bridgeport called for a 44-room, 88-bed facility. Milstein and other state advocates lobbied to reduce the bed count and use more space for counselors, lawyers, teachers and other service providers. Last fall, a state bond commission approved a facility for 44 youth.

The governor’s 2007 budget proposal seeks $5 million for “Treatment, Reintegration and Education Centers.” They would include an expanded network of alternative sentencing programs and a system of smaller training schools around the state, totaling 90 secure beds.

It is the same concept that fell on deaf ears when presented by DeMuro and company before the training center was built.


Tim Smith, Superintendent
Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Detention Center
Staunton, Va.
(540) 886-0729

Don DeVore, Director
Connecticut Bureau of
Juvenile Justice
Hartford, Conn.
(860) 723-7210,


Youth Today is the only independent, internationally distributed digital media publication that is read by thousands of professionals in the youth service field.

Youth Today adheres to high-quality journalistic standards, providing readers with professional news coverage dedicated to examining a wide spectrum of complex issues in the youth services industry from legislation to community-based youth work.


Our organization retains full authority over editorial content to protect the best journalistic and business interests of our organization. We maintain a firewall between news coverage decisions and sources of all revenue.


We are committed to transparency in every aspect of funding our organization. Donors may be quoted, mentioned or featured in our stories. Our news judgments are made independently – not based on or influenced by donors. Accepting financial support does not mean we endorse donors or their products, services or opinions…(read more)

Recent Comments




Kennesaw State University Mountain Logo & Ceneter for Sustainable Journalism Logo
LOGO Institute for Nonprofit News 3 turquoise boxes stacked in "J" shape
Logo Grant professional Association Business Alliance

Copyright © 2018 Youth Today and MVP Themes --- Published by Center for Sustainable Journalism,
Kennesaw State University, 1200 Chastain Blvd. Suite 310, Kennesaw GA 30144

To Top