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Youth detention center celebrates renovation

Posted: February 27, 2013 - 9:48pm  |  Updated: February 28, 2013 - 12:18am
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Juvenile Justice Officer Sven Noreen, center, gives a tour from the new detention facility's control center during an open house at the Johnson Youth Center on Wednesday.  Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Juvenile Justice Officer Sven Noreen, center, gives a tour from the new detention facility's control center during an open house at the Johnson Youth Center on Wednesday.

The Johnson Youth Center, a detention and treatment center for at-risk youth, hosted an open house Wednesday to celebrate the completion of renovations to its building.

The new superintendent, Jess Lujan, said the construction project helped modernize the aging building, which was originally constructed to house adult female offenders.

“The 30-plus year old facility was far from meeting the growing and changing needs of the division,” Lujan said in a speech before a crowd comprised largely of those in the corrections field.

Dozens of people took tours of the new, more spacious detention unit that boasts better security and technology to monitor youth.

The unit, which detains offenders from 10 to 19 years of age for up to 30 days as they await court hearings, also features a softer aesthetic than the previous unit. Fresh light green paint coats the walls, wooden doors replaced the steel ones and each of the cells now has a large window.

“It’s surreal,” said Dennis Weston, the former JYC superintendent who oversaw the beginning and middle of the construction phase. “You know, you see it on paper, and you walk through it in the construction phase, and then you see the finished product. I cannot believe this is the same footprint that we started with 18 months ago. It’s just amazing how the space has been used, and that it’s the same space.”

The medical, probation and administrative offices at JYC were renovated as well. The project also entailed an eco-friendly aspect by building 24 geothermal wells in the JYC parking lot to heat part of the building.

JYC, which is a Division of Juvenile Justice facility under the Alaska Department of Health & Social Services, received $9.5 million in capital outlay money from the state in 2009 for the project. Construction began in October 2011.

Lujan said the project was possible due to the work of politicians who supported funding the project, especially Gov. Sean Parnell and Sen. Dennis Egan.

“The funding went bye-bye a year before I took office,” Egan said in a speech. “I worked hard with the governor. We had other members of the Legislature (support the project), and this is the result.”

Egan said he previously visited the facility and observed a sagging roof, security issues and an outdoor recreational area deemed too dangerous to use.

Barbara Henjum, the director of the state of Alaska’s Division of Juvenile Justice, said some in the crowd might be wondering why the state would choose to invest its financial resources in a project that improves the safety and security of juvenile offenders.

“I learned a long time ago that there’s a great responsibility, and in many ways it’s a burden when you’re responsible for confining, for locking people up,” Henjum said. “And in our DJJ facilities, we do that with children. ... No matter what their size, or what they’re arrested for, the first time they come into one of our facilities, they’re afraid, they don’t know what’s going to happen to them, their parents are concerned. We have a huge responsibility. Almost all of our kids come to us with extensive backgrounds of trauma, and they have reason not to trust the adults that are taking care of them.”

As the construction was taking place over the past year and a half, the detention unit was moved temporarily into the long-term stay treatment unit, which is located in a different building. The youth will be moved into the new detention unit starting next week.

• Contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at 523-2263 or at emily.miller@juneauempire.com.

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