Oak Hill center's future unclear

Reform plans proceed at Laurel detention facility

Critics want juvenile site closed

D.C. officials say finding new location is unfeasible

October 25, 2004|By Molly Knight | Molly Knight,SUN STAFF

Faced with a Nov. 15 deadline to submit a plan to save Oak Hill Youth Center in Laurel, District of Columbia officials say they are working feverishly to improve conditions at the troubled juvenile detention facility and avert its shutdown.

Mark Back, an interim special counsel appointed by district Mayor Anthony A. Williams to stabilize Oak Hill, said his team has submitted the first in a series of detailed work plans to improve safety, health and security at the city complex that sits in Anne Arundel County.

Last week, D.C. Superior Court Judge Herbert B. Dixon approved the plan, a decision Back hailed as an achievement for the city's Youth Services Administration, an independent arbiter and attorneys involved in the long-simmering battle over Oak Hill's fate.

"I don't think anyone can argue that we're not progressing," said Back.

Except, that is, for nearby residents and Maryland legislators who have been pushing for more than 20 years to close the crowded facility.

Last week, Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin announced plans to introduce a bill in Congress that would authorize the sale of Oak Hill's property - 888 bucolic acres off Route 198 - to its neighbor, the National Security Agency, and to Anne Arundel County.

Another small portion would be designated as wetlands and overseen by the Patuxent Wildlife Refuge. The land sale would fund the closure of Oak Hill and the construction of a new facility in the district.

"The framework of this plan makes it a win-win situation," said Cardin, who is up for re-election Nov. 2. "We will use the property to solve the problem."

Cardin's plan is also backed by state Sen. John A. Giannetti Jr., a Democrat whose district includes Anne Arundel and Prince George's counties. The congressman said his bill would not only relieve the state of the burdens of Oak Hill, which has seen several escapes during the past decade, but would give NSA a larger security buffer and move juvenile inmates closer to their families in the district. But for Back and others from the D.C. Youth Services Administration, the obstacle to Cardin's plan can be summed up in one word: Where?

"You are simply not going to find the space for a campus-like setting - one with room for a school, medical facilities, a cafeteria - in D.C.," said Back, who helped city officials draft a plan for the construction of a new Oak Hill facility on its current location, where it would coexist with the NSA.

When asked about Cardin's plan, Back said: "All I can say is that his and ours are two very divergent plans - I'm not sure there is any in-between."

Clashing parties have been tossing out plans for the facility since 1986, when a district judge issued a consent decree requiring reform at the district's juvenile justice centers, including Oak Hill - a 208-bed, maximum-security detention center for offenders ages 14 to 21.

But conditions at the facility only grew worse.

In March, the Washington Office of the Inspector General issued a detailed report of problems at Oak Hill, including fire hazards, drug smuggling, crowding, vandalism, inadequate emergency response systems, poor kitchen sanitation and lax security.

Two months later, the court decided to turn over Oak Hill to an independent arbiter and set the November deadline for action.

If district officials succeed in persuading the arbiter, Grace M. Lopes, that Oak Hill can be reformed, it could remain in Laurel. If not, Lopes could agree to close Oak Hill and move its inmates somewhere in the district.

Should Cardin's bill pass, the title to Oak Hill would be transferred to Anne Arundel County, in a move similar to Congress' 2002 return of land occupied by the former D.C. Department of Corrections facility at Lorton, Va., to Fairfax County, which forced the prison to shut down.

Back said the next step for district officials is the December opening of a facility off Mount Olivet Road Northeast in the district to house 80 of Oak Hill's detained youths. The remaining 80 or more would remain in Laurel, he said.

Meanwhile, Laurel residents are vowing to support Cardin's bill and continue their fight to shut down Oak Hill.

Ray Smallwood, president of Maryland City Civic Association, noted safety hazards posed by the facility, from which more than a dozen youths have escaped in the past decade.

"We've been fighting this for too long, and we don't want to end up back at the table," said Smallwood, who is also head of the Maryland City Volunteer Fire Department.

"The district," he added, "found property for a baseball stadium, now they need to find some for their children."

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