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Meeting the distinct needs of girls: progressive, gender-specific design for girls' detention.

Girls in the juvenile detention and revocation program in Massachusetts are currently housed in a former boys' detention unit in a state mental health facility built in the late 19th century. Little modification has been done since the state's Department of Youth Services (DYS) took it over as a girls' detention facility in the mid-1990s. Also, the current facility has few modern amenities. It has no indoor athletic space, minimal outdoor recreation space, cramped teaching spaces and no separate intake area. Operable windows with bars provide both ventilation and security. There is no elevator to provide access to the second floor where the living and sleeping areas are located. The facility cannot even support basic, modern infrastructure requirements such as additional electrical and telephone lines. Unfortunately, this is not an anomaly.


Until recently, the girls' detention population has been historically small and the girls' crimes were mostly nonviolent, so the girls' needs were at the end of the line in state priorities. During the past 10 years, there has been not only a 400 percent increase in the girls' population in the detention system nationwide, but a shift to more violent crimes as well.

This increase in the girls' population in the system has given national youth service agencies enough case study data to recognize that girls do not respond to the detention and educational model that was devised for boys. DYS has noted this research and is keenly aware that boys and girls in detention have different management, environmental and counseling needs. Within budgetary constraints, DYS attempted to implement gender-specific programs to meet those needs. Consequently, there has been a refocus on the importance of counseling, job training, physical recreation, trauma work and parenting skills, as well as the importance of providing the detention facilities with physical attributes that support the girl's gender-specific programs.

Consequently, during the past eight years, DYS spearheaded an initiative to overhaul the girls' programming and services to correctly respond to their gender-specific issues. A collaborative process drew support and cooperation from the top down, to include the governor of Massachusetts, the secretary of health and human services in Massachusetts, the commissioner of the Department of Capital Asset Management and the commissioner of DYS. When the building funds became available, DYS retained the services of Symmes, Maini and McKee Associates Inc. of Cambridge, Mass., a full-service architectural and engineering firm with both educational (K-12) and correctional expertise; and Voorhis Associates, of Boulder, Colo., a youth corrections planner, to help DYS translate its ideas into tangible realities.

Modern Functionalities

The new facility, currently in the design-development phase, will be a 45,500-square-foot space built specifically for girls ages 12 to 18 on the campus of Westborough State Hospital in the central region of Massachusetts. DYS has taken a hands-on approach to shaping the design, asking questions and making suggestions as to the functionality, adjacencies and flexibility of the building, as well as security, safety, maintenance, housekeeping issues and their attendant operating costs.


Symmes, Maini and McKee Associates is bringing its K-12 educational expertise in the design of classrooms, dormitories, kitchens, health suites, cafeterias, and athletic and recreational spaces. Additionally, the firm's experience in corrections work is allowing the design team to knowledgably apply security solutions that combine the positives of both operationally and facilities-based protocols. Consequently, DYS is anticipating a truly state-of-the-art facility that will address specific programming needs of girls. Because sustainable design and environmental concerns are a priority in Massachusetts, the facility is working for LEED Silver certification. (1)

Practical Programming Needs

Since girls have different treatment needs than boys, the design team did not want to take the boys' model and just paint it pink. A good deal of time is being spent "normalizing" the space, making it appear like a high school or boarding school. Although security for the facility must be high, it should be unobtrusive. The team is working out the details of the interior design to create a pleasing environment with good visual lines. Natural light and views to the outdoors are prime components. The windows were designed to look like residential double hung windows, four panes wide and six panes high. The vertical divider between each pane is a security bar.

Since statistics show that girls are more likely to do physical harm to themselves compared with boys, who are prone to hurt others, DYS emphasizes that the new design will be a tremendous asset in terms of creating a safer environment. For example, suicide-resistant sprinklers, coat hooks, air supply and exhaust grilles, hardware on doors, impact-resistant glazing, etc., will make the facility safer.

The design goal for the bedrooms is to make them as pleasant as possible while still maintaining the girls' safety. One of the problems with beds is that someone can stand on them and hit the sprinkler heads to set them off. The height and slope of the new ceilings are designed so sprinkler heads cannot be reached for nuisance activation. In addition, the design team is looking at furniture that is aesthetically pleasing and still holds up well. The reinforced fiberglass furniture, consisting of beds, desks, chairs and cubbyholes, can be secured to the walls and floors. Bulletin boards and tacks are not allowed, so personal photos of family or celebrities can be taped to walls on the areas designated by paint as tape-up spots and will add color to the room. The plan is to allow each girl the opportunity to add some personal touches.

To make the design more efficient for staff supervision, closed-circuit televisions at the perimeters and in the intake area will be incorporated. A security room will house the tapes and monitors. It should be emphasized that cameras will not be used in bathrooms, bedrooms or classrooms, but will be focused on entranceways and halls.

Gender-Specific Design

The overall design encompasses four "houses," each with 15 girls, in four double and seven single bed-rooms, with clustered toilets, showers and grooming areas for each house. It is hoped that a sense of community can be fostered by the design to substitute for the missing family support and direction, and capitalize on the relational nature of girls. The girls, at the staff's direction, can remain in the smaller environment of the house or join in the shared commons and living areas.

Bathroom layout and grooming time is one aspect unique to a girls' facility. Girls require more privacy due to issues related to body image, and they have extra grooming needs. In making the smaller dormitory communities, the architectural/engineering firm was able to incorporate an individual shower, toilet and grooming area in each house. Real glass mirrors behind plexiglass will accommodate up to four girls at the same time. This will be a welcome change--it can often take more than 90 minutes to get girls showered and out to scheduled programs or court dates.

The building currently housing the girls does not have an intake area. Intake searches and personal belonging inventory are done in the main facility. The new facility will house a separate intake section, which will allow staff to process new arrivals and conduct inventory control as well as provide girls with more privacy and respect.

DYS notes that girls access medical services more often than boys because of significant histories of trauma and abuse, body image concerns, eating disorders, and pregnancy and birth control issues. In response to this fact, the design incorporates direct access to the medical services, with the health suite centrally located among the residential dorms, clinical areas and cafeteria.

The new building will incorporate: space for the clinic director and clinicians to conduct group meetings and therapies, as well as perform the intake process; private rooms for weekly counseling sessions and psychiatric appointments; and sick bays, exam rooms, offices and medical supply storage spaces to accommodate the needs of the medical services group that includes physician assistants, nurses, the visiting doctor and pediatrician. The large areas now dedicated for these groups will supercede the single room currently used as an office and exam room.

Unique Needs

DYS does a significant amount of work with girls who have experienced abuse, whether sexual or physical. One of the gender-specific curriculum and interventions DYS uses is dialectical behavior therapy, a trauma-based cognitive-behavioral therapy. Research shows that in periods of difficulty or re-experiencing of trauma, girls tend to try to run away. It is important for these girls to know they are in a safe place. For this reason, as well as detention requirements, the building is a secured, locked facility, with fenced-in, outdoor recreation areas, a perimeter fence, and controlled interior and exterior entrances.

Further, with several of the girls in DYS' charge pregnant or mothers themselves, a direct contact visitation area was needed to provide a child-friendly place for families to meet. Right now, the visitation area is in the dining area. The new building will incorporate an area for toys and floor play, as well as a diaper changing station.

Groundbreaking for this progressive girls' facility is scheduled for fall 2005, with an estimated 18-month construction period. Unlike box-like designs of the past, this will be an aesthetically pleasing building befitting of the local community. The sloped roofs and warm colors will lend themselves to the existing campus look. With focus on security and healing within a very controlled environment, it is anticipated that this forward-thinking design may be used as a yardstick to measure other Massachusetts facilities. From the start, this project has had the backing of state and local government, health and education officials, including the support of the local community and town of Westborough, all working together in a cooperative spirit. Their hope and goal is that with the gender-specific nurturing and security of this new facility, these girls will one day return to the community as productive and respected citizens.


(1) LEED, Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, was developed by the U.S. Green Building Council as a system by which the level of sustainable design and construction can be measured and rated.

Barbara Morton is area director for the Massachusetts Department of Youth Services. Leslie Glynn is associate principal at Symmes, Maini and McKee Associates Inc.
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Author:Morton, Barbara; Glynn, Leslie
Publication:Corrections Today
Geographic Code:1U1MA
Date:Aug 1, 2005
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