Detainment with dignity is new center's goal
At $20m Westborough facility, DYS hopes 40 girls will learn from mistakes
Fifteen-year-old Camile is a ward of the state with a room of her own.
As an inmate at the Zara
The lack of a camera in her bedroom helps to compensate. "I like my personal privacy," Camile said.
That sense of individuality, or dignity, was very much the goal of state officials when they opened the Lyman Street facility in June. Built to house convicted females too young to be incarcerated with adults, the $20 million center, named after a female elder of the Grafton-based Nipmuc Native American tribe, is designed to help girls learn from the mistakes that led them there in the first place. Alarms, heavy metal doors, and tall fences remind visitors that the center is meant to foil escape. But single bedrooms, bright colors, a sun-flooded cafeteria, and other amenities give the facility a soft touch that officials say especially suits girls who need to feel safe and protected.
Camile is one of 15 girls now being held in the center; over the next few months, that population is expected to grow to 40 inmates. A judge placed her there after she was caught skipping school, a violation of her probation stemming from a nonviolent crime conviction that also could not be revealed because of her age. "I was being bad in school and not doing my schoolwork," said Camile.
DYS has approximately 320 female minors in custody. Sixteen of the worst offenders will be housed at the center once it is fully occupied, DYS Commissioner Jane Tewksbury said. They will remain there until they turn 21 or reach the ends of their sentences. The remaining two dozen center detainees will, like Camile, be spending only 30 to 45 days there. For them, the center will be something of a pit stop; social workers will determine whether they need drug, psychiatric, or other treatments before they are moved to their next DYS destination, which might be foster homes or other detention facilities.
Private rooms and other features of the center's physical layout were based on observations social workers and criminologists have made of girls in state custody over the years, Tewksbury said. Whereas boys in DYS facilities have often committed violent crimes, and will sometimes act violently toward others when they feel threatened or frustrated, girls are more likely to have committed less serious crimes, and to have been victims of violence. They tend to direct their fear and anger inward, often cutting themselves or becoming suicidal.
"Many of our girls, in addition to having experienced perhaps child abuse and neglect, have also been sexually exploited," said Tewksbury. "They are struggling to make their way because of all the issues related to their past trauma histories."
The center aims to rehabilitate girls by helping them cope with their abuse, said Laura Prescott, director of the program that assesses detainees' needs when they arrive at the facility. "Many never had a place that was safe," Prescott said. "I think what it says to them is, 'You are valued.' "
Single bedrooms are perhaps the most important part of the facility's girl-in-mind design, said the center's architect, Lorraine Finnegan of Cambridge-based Symmes, Maini & McKee Associates. "With girls as opposed to boys, there's a real issue with privacy at that age," Finnegan said.
Nightlights are built into the bedrooms' overhead lamps, a seemingly trifling addition, but one of enormous importance for many girls who associate dark bedrooms with family members abusing them sexually, Prescott said. "We've struggled for years and years with the door being shut and how it affects them," she said. "Because of their trauma histories, once you shut a door on them, it's a nightmare."
The facility also has bathrooms one girl can use at a time. Usually, DYS institutions have group bathrooms where girls may feel exposed among their peers. "A lot of emphasis is on normalization," Finnegan said. "Individual bathrooms would serve the population better and enhance that normalization feeling."
The anxiety girls might feel about their appearance is also taken into consideration. Each of the center's four wings has a "hygiene storage room" that contains hair dryers and other cosmetic tools. But the storage rooms are locked so that girls can use those items only under supervision. "They can get their curling irons divvied out by the staff," Finnegan said. "You still need to be very concerned with suicide, so you don't leave anything with a cord around."
Because state law mandates that minors receive an education as they are detained, the center doubles as a school. In the 1890s-era facility the center replaced, which was also in Westborough, schoolrooms were ill suited to modern teaching. The current facility's interior is decorated to resemble a school, rather than a jail or prison. "Color was a huge part of this," said Finnegan. "Detention facilities are typically department-of-mental-health green. We have eggplant, terra-cotta, we have green, blue, mustard."
After staying in the old center in April and May, moving to a foster home for June, and then arriving in the new center in late July, Camile was relatively pleased with her new digs. "I like this place because I like the rooms better," she said. In the old facility, "there were bugs, mostly spiders."
Camile said her social worker told her she would be able to complete her course of treatment in the next few months.
It was unclear if she would move to a new facility or be kept in Westborough for her treatment. It was also unclear if she could expect to be released from the DYS system or move to a new facility after her treatment ends.
"She's very smart," said Mark Cherubim, director of clinical services at the center, referring to Camile.
"If you look at her offense history, she would probably be able to go past that history and move on if she gets the right help."