$9.5 million for Johnson Youth Center renovation in Parnell's budget request

Posted: Monday, December 21, 2009

The much-needed renovations of the Johnson Youth Center became clearly evident last month after two juveniles escaped from the juvenile detention facility by scaling a security fence and subsequently hiding out in the community.

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Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

For several years, the state has been trying to secure funding to renovate the facility and bring JYC up to contemporary safety and security standards. But in April, the Senate Finance Committee removed the $9.5 million capital improvement project from the fiscal year 2010 budget. The funding for the renovation was included in Gov. Sean Parnell's fiscal year 2011 budget that his office released last week.

"This particular project was the number-one priority of the Department of Health and Social Services," said Karen Rehfeld, director of the governor's Office of Management and Budget.

The funds being requested are for the first phase of a proposed three-phase $17.6 million renovation of the aging facility that was built as a women's prison in the late-1960s. The state conducted a study in summer 2007 on the safety and security of Alaska's four oldest juvenile detention centers and determined JYC needed significant renovations.

"Certainly the safety and security needs of adult women in 1970 are vastly different than the needs of juveniles in 2009," said Dennis H. Weston, superintendent of JYC. "They have rooms that were built without the safety and liability protocols that are in place now."

The eight-bed facility was designed to hold multiple prisoners in each room, even though the building now houses only one juvenile per room. It was designed with the idea that prisoners would spend the majority of their time locked inside their rooms.

"Our liability when we house juveniles for 24 hours a day is much higher than when they were housing women in the 1970s," Weston said. "We have additional safety protocols that we have to follow and we really do take that part of the job very seriously."

The plan for the first phase of the renovation calls for creating eight detention rooms that open into a centralized dayroom for better visibility, as well as one observation cell and one intake cell that can be monitored by a workstation. It also calls for two classrooms, a medical suite and a detention space for an admissions area.

"It's a renovation of the existing building," Weston said. "It doesn't involve any more staffing to run, so it wouldn't be an ongoing cost."

One of the main problems is visibility in the facility, Weston said, adding that there are numerous places within JYC where supervisors can't adequately monitor the juvenile offenders.

"We are working with at-risk teens and we want to be able to see them at all times and the unit as it is currently constructed has a lot of blind spots," he said.

Sen. Dennis Egan, D-Juneau, said he was surprised to see the state of the facility during a recent tour of JYC.

"You have a guy sitting at a desk and he can't even see the different cells where these kids are incarcerated," he said. "It's a life safety issue as far as I'm concerned."

Egan said he is pretty confident the money will be approved by the Legislature this coming session for the much-needed renovation.

"The governor supports it and I think that's a good thing for Juneau," he said.

Parnell is very concerned about the safety and security of the juvenile detention centers, Rehfeld said.

"It's a facility that provides an important service in Southeast Alaska," she said. "We want the individuals who are served by that facility to be safe and the people who work there to be safe, so it's an important project."

Making sure a renovation is completed to bring the facility up to contemporary standards is Weston's top priority.

"There is nothing else out there that is of higher priority as a superintendent than to get the security and safety needs of that unit renovated," he said.

The proposed future renovations include upgrading the campus perimeter, remodeling probation offices and establishing a laundry facility and maintenance shop.

"When they get it renovated I don't think those two kids will be able to escape again," Egan said.

• Contact reporter Eric Morrison at 523-2269 or eric.morrison@juneauempire.com.

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