Youth Lockup Facility Transformed Into a Community Hub

Posted December 7, 2023
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
A woman stands in front of a pop-art mural that says "you are enough!" painted onto a wall; racks of clothing stand in front of the wallinside a store

The Annie E. Casey Foun­da­tion has pro­duced Trans­form­ing a Juve­nile Facil­i­ty and Youth Jus­tice in Hous­ton, Texas, a short film on the trans­for­ma­tion of a Har­ris Coun­ty juve­nile cor­rec­tion­al facil­i­ty into a com­mu­ni­ty hub. Called the Oppor­tu­ni­ty Cen­ter, it offers class­es in which jus­tice-involved youth — and the broad­er com­mu­ni­ty — can devel­op skills and build relationships.

The six-minute video explains how the adap­tive reuse of the build­ing is part of a larg­er youth jus­tice move­ment away from puni­tive approach­es and toward options that pro­mote account­abil­i­ty, pos­i­tive con­nec­tions and mean­ing­ful oppor­tu­ni­ties that help posi­tion youth for long-term success.

I first toured this build­ing in 2019, well before the trans­for­ma­tion, and the atmos­phere left our team shak­en and sad,” recalls Danielle Lipow, a senior asso­ciate with the Casey Foun­da­tion. It was hard to imag­ine it could ever be more than a prison. Vis­it­ing The Oppor­tu­ni­ty Cen­ter today leaves me inspired, hope­ful and eager to see what’s next.”

Repur­pos­ing a Youth Cor­rec­tion­al Facility

View­ers are giv­en a short his­to­ry of the build­ing for­mer­ly known as the Bur­nett-Bay­land Reha­bil­i­ta­tion Cen­ter, where con­fined youth spent near­ly 80% of their time in four rooms. Today, The Oppor­tu­ni­ty Cen­ter hous­es learn­ing labs and voca­tion­al work­shops in which young peo­ple and com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers ben­e­fit from offer­ings such as:

  • aca­d­e­m­ic class­es, includ­ing GED exam prep;
  • employ­ment services;
  • ath­let­ics;
  • a record­ing stu­dio; and
  • hands-on voca­tion­al training.

Now, as you walk through, you see young peo­ple in class­rooms learn­ing, thriv­ing, cre­at­ing rela­tion­ships with each oth­er and imag­in­ing a future that is much brighter,” explains Yumari Mar­tinez, the found­ing exec­u­tive direc­tor of Cat­alyze Jus­tice. A juve­nile jus­tice reform expert, Mar­tinez also con­sult­ed for the juve­nile pro­ba­tion depart­ment in Har­ris County.

Rethink­ing Cor­rec­tion­al Resources

Between 2014 and 2022, the num­ber of young peo­ple referred to Har­ris Coun­ty’s juve­nile jus­tice sys­tem fell by 43%. The change gave the coun­ty a chance to rethink its phys­i­cal resources, includ­ing the use of the Bur­nett-Bay­land Reha­bil­i­ta­tion Cen­ter, which had served as a juve­nile cor­rec­tion­al facil­i­ty for decades.

In order for the kids to move their [lives] for­ward, they have to have the oppor­tu­ni­ty to do so,” Hen­ry Gon­za­les, exec­u­tive direc­tor of the Har­ris Coun­ty Juve­nile Pro­ba­tion Depart­ment, says in the film. He cites the work of pro­grams such as Home­boy Indus­tries in Los Ange­les, Cal­i­for­nia, Café Momen­tum in Dal­las, Texas, and La Plazi­ta Insti­tute in Albu­querque, New Mex­i­co, as inspi­ra­tion for keep­ing youth safe and sup­port­ed in their own com­mu­ni­ties while seek­ing to reduce, or even elim­i­nate, youth involve­ment in the legal sys­tem.

In repur­pos­ing this build­ing, what we want­ed to do was to make sure that our young peo­ple had oppor­tu­ni­ties to thrive.”

Read more on Har­ris Coun­ty’s efforts to improve juve­nile justice

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