Visit to juvenile facility unlocks childhood memories

City Diary

February 04, 2004|By Gregory Lewis

GROWING OLD in the same town where you grew up means accommodating the ghosts of what used to be. Willy-nilly, a chance encounter with this or that place can spontaneously provoke a sense of dM-ijM-` vu.

For instance, while visiting the new Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center, a 244,000- square-foot detention and administrative facility downtown on a blighted block of Gay Street, I kept trying to fix the exact spot where day-old pastries were sold when I was a juvenile and much of that same space housed the Rice's Bakery compound.

Actually, my Matrix moment began outside the Oasis Station, a "drop-in" homeless shelter farther down the block that has replaced the Simon Harris sporting goods store. It was the erstwhile purveyor of discount basketball sneakers (Converse's Chuck Taylor All Stars, memory insisted, but not the Jack Purcell "bluetips") in the heyday of the NBA's Baltimore Bullets.

In one of the few occupied buildings across the street, where raggedy little boys like me once morphed into fashion-conscious young men in Easter suits from Sam Glass' haberdashery, a collection of social service agencies now offers non-sartorial improvement options.

Three 48-bed jail dormitories -- not confectionery ovens -- will cater to children at the hulking, three-story brick and glass structure that is heir apparent to the Cheltenham Youth Facility in Prince George's County, which opened in 1870 as the House of Reformation and Instruction for Colored Children.

The demise of "Shuck-en-ham" (as we called it) surely will not be mourned. In my day, that dreaded name connoted banishment. Apparently, such banishment is no longer dreaded: "Almost 80 percent of juveniles who are released from secured facilities are re-arrested within six months," according to a recent issue of The Maryland Bar Journal.

Undoubtedly, the classrooms, computer lab, library and other shiny Gay Street amenities are a cut above the shopworn juvenile justice apparatus -- a Baltimore City magistrate for juvenile causes began hearing cases in 1902 -- heretofore orchestrated from the basement of nearby Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse.

A major upgrade, however, is notable by what's absent.

Resembling a scene from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's exposM-i on Soviet internment camps, The Gulag Archipelago, processions of pint-sized prisoners in handcuffs and rattling shackles were routinely led (frog-marched?) through public hallways in the old building.

No more. Courtrooms now connect to the lock-up through interior corridors.

Indeed, the reincarnated Rice's Bakery is an all-around visitor-friendly hoosegow. Its glass-enclosed atrium with extended ceiling and two-tier balcony presents a welcoming lobby that connects visually with the passing street scene.

It's inviting, like the gingerbread house in Hansel and Gretel, the classic Grimm's fairy tale about child abuse.

Recalling that story is instructive.

The Old One, as the witch was called, "had built that sweet and sugary house on purpose to attract little children." Why? In order to cook and eat them. "As the Old One poked her horrid old head into the oven," in Wanda Gag's translation, "Gretel gave her a push and a shove, closed the oven door, bolted it swiftly and ran away."

Despite enlightened (i.e., non-gastronomical) intentions, society at large increasingly risks sharing the Old One's fate -- retaliatory violence -- because the certain consequence of building more and more juvenile prisons -- "the goose coop," in our fable -- is that more and more children will be put into them. Build them, and they will come.

Necessary? Maybe, but evil nonetheless.

After proceeding single file through the security screening checkpoint, a visitor to the Gay Street facility can take an elevator to the upper floors, where a virtual bazaar of juvenile justice services awaits.

Or, to the right of the elevators, a doorway leads to a reception area with a guard post behind a thick glass barrier. I went that way, just to have a look.

Once upon a time, somewhere beyond those locked doors, a greedy little boy like me could buy a feast of sweets from Rice's Bakery's thrift shop and, as I recollect, get change back from a quarter.

Today's writer

Gregory Lewis is a lawyer who lives in the Edmondson Village section of West Baltimore.

City Diary provides a forum for examining issues and events in Baltimore's neighborhoods and welcomes contributions from readers.

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