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What’s Next: Shut Down Arlington’s Juvie Facility

What’s Next is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

(Updated at 3:40 p.m.) “There was a single light on that I couldn’t turn off. I didn’t sleep while I was there.”

Below I will detail a discussion I had with someone, who for the purpose of this column I will refer to as “Alex,” about their time three years ago in the Northern Virginia Juvenile Detention Center, located in Alexandria. The facility houses children and adolescents from Arlington, Alexandria, and Falls Church.

Alex was sent to the Juvenile Detention Center after two run-ins with the law. First, they were caught possessing less than an ounce of weed, and then another incident where they blew a .05 on a breathalyzer after being pulled over while on probation.

I will not go through the merits of Alex’s admittance to the facility, but rather detail the torturous conditions that Alex and hundreds of other Arlington children and teens have endured.

“After I got in the building through two cages with wire fencing, I was stripped, showered, and searched. My cell was completely concrete on all four sides and probably the size of a walk in closet. My thin mattress was built on concrete too and almost touched the joined toilet and sink. There was a slit of a window, but it was so high I couldn’t see out of it at all. There was a closed slit on the door that the guards gave me food through.”

For comparison purposes, in federal maximum security prison ADX Florence, also known as the “Alcatraz of the Rockies,” inmates have more amenities than this facility. They are able to see out of a window facing outside, have a door window, as well as a personal radio, television, and the Bible. ADX holds Al-Qaeda terrorists, the Boston Marathon bomber, organized crime members, and mass murders. The Northern Virginia Juvenile Detention Center holds children who sell weed and have “juvenile DUIs”.

“We had one hour of recreation where I played basketball and one hour in a social area where they gave us lemonade. The rest of the time was spent back in the cell. Since the walls are thick concrete you couldn’t knock or talk to neighbors. I was very isolated. The guard barely walked by. If I had a health problem it wouldn’t have been good because they couldn’t even see in.”

If you are doing the math in your head, that is 22 hours in a cell alone. We define solitary confinement as being in a cell for 22 or more hours without human contact.

Now imagine being in solitary confinement in a maximum-security prison while being tortured with a light that doesn’t turn off. This year Arlington kids collectively spent 2,893 days in this facility between January and September.

Luckily, the City of Alexandria has proposed a study to regionalize our juvenile detention facilities — but not for the reasons that you might think. This study was not started because of the torturous conditions, but rather, that it isn’t being filled. The study is called the Cost-Benefit Analysis of the Use of the Northern Virginia Regional Juvenile Detention Center and Alternatives.

There is a public meeting TONIGHT from 7-8:30 p.m. at the Arlington Central Library auditorium (1015 N. Quincy Street). There is also an online survey you can take here.

So far, the conditions of the facility have not been talked about, making it vitally important that you either take the online survey or attend tonight’s meeting to make a difference.

A resolution was brought by the Arlington County Civic Federation’s Legislative Committee this Tuesday. Committee Chairwoman Juliet Hiznay said, “I am alarmed about the apparent lack of transparency and lack of oversight of Commission activities. The last formal action taken by the board, before this study, was more than a decade ago to appoint Dr. Alfred Taylor on December 15, 2008, to the Commission.”

Part of the recommendation is to consider transferring inmates to other facilities in either Fairfax, Loudoun, or Prince William counties. It is worth noting that if we discontinue our use of the facility and use another facility it would likely provide a cost saving, but our Sheriff’s Department would need to use more staff time and funds to transfer inmates further distances.

To me, this does not come down to cost, it comes down to humanity. I plead with Arlington County to end the incarceration of children at this facility.

NOTE: For purposes of this column I requested a tour of the facility and left my information. I did not get a call back.

Nicole Merlene is an Arlington native and former candidate for Virginia State Senate. She has served as a leader in the community on the boards of the Arlington County Civic Federation and North Rosslyn Civic Association, as an Arlington Economic Development commissioner, in neighborhood transportation planning groups, and as a civic liaison to the Rosslyn Business Improvement District.

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