Eastern Washington public officials aren’t exactly unhappy about the nickname their new Martin Hall regional juvenile detention center has acquired in its first three months of operation: “Martin Hell.”
“The word is out,” said Larry Gardner, a psychologist and special education teacher at both Martin Hall in Medical Lake and the Spokane County Juvenile Detention Center.
“At the county detention center, they talk about Martin Hall,” he said. “They don’t want to go there.”
That attitude may be based more on perception than on actual differences between Martin Hall and any other detention center, but public officials say the new center is deliberately uninviting. Youths spend more time in their rooms and have no diversions such as team sports, movies or music.
“I think it is having a positive effect that way,” said Paula Holter-Mehren, Juvenile Court administrator for Stevens, Pend Oreille and Ferry counties. Besides, she said, kids are better off without the sex and violence in many PG movies and gangster rap music.
“We don’t want kids to think they’re going to go and be tortured there, but it is very different from home where they have all the luxuries and freedoms and privileges that they are used to having.”
With the threat of Martin Hall hanging over their heads, youths are more willing to go to school or counseling sessions, Holter-Mehren said.
As unpopular as Martin Hall may be, its relatively young staff gets good marks from the guests.
“Most of them are really cool,” said a 17-year-old Stevens County boy with a record of violent crime. “They’re not too strict. If you’re having anger problems, they’ll take time out of their busy schedules to come talk to you.”
The boy, Jeremiah, knows something about juvenile detention centers. He’s been in county lockups in Yakima and Sandpoint, a Washington state detention center and a state youth camp, where he got booted out for bad behavior.
“This is the toughest of them all, and I hope I don’t come back,” he said. “I get tired of being in my room. Like on the weekends, the time goes by really slow. It really changes your mind about things.”
When kids aren’t in class or running for exercise, they’re likely to be alone in their rooms. There, possessions are limited to one photograph, one religious book and one secular book.
“They’re to look at their hearts and their behavior,” said Martin Hall director Denny Roach, an 18-year veteran of the Spokane County Juvenile Detention Center, where he was a shift supervisor. “If a kid is having a good time, can he do that?
“I’m not sure he can. I think crisis promotes a young person to look into his heart.”
Jeremiah claims to have gotten the message.
He’s one of several repeat visitors at Martin Hall. Five days after getting out from 30 days on a trespass conviction, he was back on two fourth-degree assault counts and a harassment charge.
“I spend a lot of time thinking about it and reading,” he said. “I’ve read about a million books here.”
One of his favorites was “The Postman” by David Brin. “It was a really good book, but I hear the movie is lame compared with the book.”
Good books aside, he said, “sometimes it seems kind of unfair” that Martin Hall doesn’t have basketball or other team sports as other detention centers do.
Without sports and movies, some youths find other things to appreciate. One of those things is classes taught by teachers from Educational Service District 101, which also provides schooling at the Spokane County Juvenile Detention Center.
A 16-year-old Douglas County girl said Martin Hall is a rotten place to be when you’re in your room, but “you can make it pretty cool when you’re out of your room.”
She was in detention for probation violations, including failure to go to school, after being convicted of assaulting a girl she said had threatened her while she was pregnant.
A 13-year-old girl from Stevens County, working on a 28-day sentence for truancy, said she likes to go to school at Martin Hall. Classes are small and teachers are quick to help, she said.
“You get to do your work at your own pace,” the 16-year-old agreed.
The younger girl said she likes getting to see other kids during “physical training,” running and exercising in the multipurpose room which looks a lot like a small gymnasium without basketball hoops.
Teacher Elisa Schlattman, who previously taught four years at the Spokane County Juvenile Detention Center, said she and other Martin Hall instructors are quicker to send kids back to their rooms - with homework - if they misbehave in class.
“We are much more confrontational,” she said: “‘This is unacceptable. How are you going to change it?”’ But the 13-year-old truant said the staff also is quick to listen to kids and take their concerns seriously. She said she appreciated being confronted when she arrived: “I had this thing about suicide. They made me think different.”
Roach said he wanted young employees who are “just breaking into the field, not jaded.” He also wanted workers who are open to new ideas, including his philosophy of blurring the boundaries between their jobs. Corrections officers help teach classes and counsel kids but must consult caseworkers on disciplinary issues.
Corrections officer Bill DeCaro, a Medical Lake police reserve officer, left a job in the parts department of a Spokane car dealership to work at Martin Hall. He said he wanted more variety and the chance to help kids.
“If I make one change, that really means something,” he said.
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