A Look Inside the Walls

In case you haven't heard, the current 48 bed Department of Youth Services facility on East Mountain Road in Westfield is going to be expanded to 110 beds, with corresponding upgrades in security and staff. It's an $8.2-million project.

What you may not know is what goes on behind the walls and locked doors of the youth detention center, who is held there, and how closely they're watched.

Inmates, all under 18, have committed crimes. Most were involved in gang-related incidents, an increasingly predominant problem in both youth and adult detention centers alike.

There are no murderers or rapists in this facility, you'll be happy to know. These violent offenders are held in maximum security state prisons in other parts of Massachusetts.

The residents in Westfield are children who, for whatever reasons, have chosen to commit crimes. By and large, they've never had a chance at a decent life or a decent education. Many were drug users. Now locked up to protect society, but also to attempt to change behavior.

Emphasis is on education. As offenders, they're locked up good and safe, to be sure, but they're still children, and most are in dire need of a proper education. So they spend five hours a day, six days a week, in the classroom. Many show an interest in education, often in the form of art or writing, that they had never shown in the past.

There are a half dozen small classrooms, a full time teaching staff, and a philosophy focused on education. Cost of this education is not exorbitant. Computers were donated, classrooms are small and plain, the library consists of a few hundred volumes stored in one tiny room. It is really the effort put forth by the educational staff and the children which makes the education valuable, and not the money put into the program.

The facility is accredited by the Westfield Public Schools. Every year inspectors from the school department evaluate the facility and, every year, it's earned accreditation.

Several detention center teachers were education majors at Westfield State College. After doing internships or student teaching at DYS, the young teachers became full-time teachers there.

With three meals a day and proper rest--for a change--many thrive in the structured environment of the detention center.

Although there is no mechanism to follow progress once the kids leave the detention center, it is the goal of the entire staff to best prepare these young offenders for whatever lies ahead. Some will be released at a certain age, others will be transferred to a state or county facility. But the goal is, through education and order, to help these children make the best of future opportunities.

Some, to be sure, will commit crimes again, and will never fully be free of the cycle of crime and incarceration begun at such a young age. But others, hopefully, will pursue a different course, turn their lives around, and become productive members of society.

Expansion of the Westfield facility will not change the basic DYS philosophy. Even though capacity will be doubled, the emphasis of the entire staff will remain education, rehabilitation, and security.

Yes, security. To be enhanced by having one main entrance and exit, to reduce the possibility of unauthorized visitors, or any escapes. Not that security at the current facility is cause for concern. There has been only one escape since the new facility was built, and the escapee was quickly apprehended.

Now, despite tall fences and barbed wire, the inmates are not allowed to go outside at all. They stay inside at all times, and use an indoor gym for exercise. They're closely supervised at all times. In the gym, there are always three staff members present, and at meals, there is a supervisor at every table. One supervisor, three boys.

Just as security will be improved, hopefully some of the lives of those held in the facility will be improved and changed, so that they do not commit further crimes, endanger law-abiding citizens, and drain the coffers of the commonwealth.

And, some more of those state dollars are coming to Westfield.

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