Johnson Youth Center, a detention and treatment center for at-risk youth, is finally getting a major facelift, something its superintendent calls long overdue.
Construction just began a week ago to renovate and modernize the facility situated on Hospital Drive, built in 1982 to house adult women offenders, not youth.
“The needs of adult women in corrections are very different from the needs at-risk youth in this day in age,” Superintendent Dennis Weston said, adding there will be “a real premium on making sure kids are safe.”
Renovation plans include making the eight bedrooms in the detention wing feel less severe and more like a college-style dorm room with moveable wooden furniture instead of the two-inch, 400-pound steel reinforced doors and metal bedslabs, which Weston described as sterile.
“The new doors, although secure, will be wood,” Weston said. “Trying to give a little softer image because they’re kids. We’re not dealing with hardened criminals all the time.”
That change reflects a newer approach on how to treat young offenders, Weston mused. In the ‘80s, occupants were forced to spend most of their time in their rooms — as evidenced by graffiti scratched on the furniture, like “I hate” in one bedroom. These days, offenders are encouraged to spend time either outside on the grounds or indoors in the common room, which has resulted in less incidents of self-harm, Weston said.
The bedrooms will remain the same size, about 8 feet x 12, but some will probably receive a second window to receive more sunlight. Seats will also be added on toilets, which are attached to a sink with a small mirror above it.
The detention wing will also be renovated to mimic the set-up of the treatment facility in a separate building on the campus, which was built in 1999. That set-up has a U-shaped station for supervisors in the center of the room to oversee everything with the rooms against the walls, instead of a control room for staff in a separate space.
Two observation rooms will be built in the detention wing as a security measure.
The detention wing, which typically houses eight offenders for 30 days as they await their court orders, will also receive security and technology updates similar to the treatment wing. The treatment wing has 10 bedrooms monitored by zoom, high-def cameras, operated by a touch-screen system, that digitally records sound for playback.
“It’s more user-friendly,” said one treatment wing supervisor Michael Carriker, noting that he can control the lights in the bedroom from the station.
A big part of the renovation also includes an environmentally friendly aspect — building geothermal wells in the parking lot to heat the detention wing and front offices. Twenty-four wells will be built about 425 feet deep in the ground to transfer heat through a pipeline connecting to the detention wing.
“We really felt strongly that it would be a good use of resources to have it out here,” Weston said, noting it should cut energy costs. “This building’s going to be here a long time.”
Front offices will also be built near the JYC entrance, as well as interview rooms and a waiting room.
JYC was awarded $9.5 million in capital outlay money from the state in 2009 for the renovations. It is a Division of Juvenile Justice facility under the arm of the Alaska Department of Health & Social Services.
The contracting bid was awarded to Cornerstone Construction, based in Anchorage, and the subcontract for the geothermal work was awarded to Hoonah drilling company AquaSource.
Weston, who has been superintendent since December of 2005, says the renovations are badly needed. The last time the center was renovated was in 2002, when it received a new arched fence, painting and landscaping.
“It’s long overdue,” Weston said.
He added, “It’s a very excited time. I feel it’s a once in a career opportunity to be part of a renovation of this scale.”
• Contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at email@example.com.