Detention center reading rooms aim to help youth offenders envision fresh chapters
MEMPHIS (AP) — By the time kids end up under Rick Powell’s supervision, it can seem the entire world is against them.
“This has not been a very happy place. It’s a jail,” said the administrator of the detention services bureau, who oversees the Memphis and Shelby County Juvenile Detention Center. “These kids have some very serious issues.”
Worried about a severely depressed 16-year-old in for aggravated burglary, he sat down with the boy not long ago.
“I asked him, ‘What do you want to do?’ He said, ‘Construction.”’
The next day Powell dropped off a glossy book illustrating how to build a house. The teen was ecstatic, but more importantly, he knew someone cared about his future.
Powell hopes more troubled kids coming through the center will use their time thinking less about being incarcerated and more about their dreams.
On Monday, more than 600 books were donated by the Memphis Public Library to help create the facility’s first reading rooms.
“I’m hoping these kids see us more as people that care for them,” he said.
Lacking the creature comforts of home, Powell describes the bars and metal chairs of the downtown holding center as cold.
But now both the boys’ and girls’ sides of the center will have nooks with donated living room setups framed by regulation height bookshelves.
Over the course of a year, nearly 10,000 kids from age 10 to 17 come through the center.
Some are being held for aggravated assault, rape or murder. Others have been hauled in for fighting, and a parent hasn’t been found to come get them, or refuses to, Powell said.
Kids facing criminal charges stay an average of two weeks.
Their days are regimented, with free time often spent watching educational television.
“It’s going to help them make better use of their time,” said Ohiana Torrealday, director of clinical services.
The psychologist meets daily with kids at the facility who are often dealing with major anxiety.
Reading has long been a way she has suggested for them to unwind and cope with their situations. “It’s a place they can go to relax,” she said.
Donated books, which will be replenished regularly by the Memphis Library, cover reading capabilities from “Charlotte’s Web” to “The Count of Monte Cristo.” And kids can keep the books they’re reading when they leave the facility.
The reading rooms were among recommendations made by an external review this summer led by the Shelby County Commission. Other recommendations the center is working to implement include partnering with Memphis City Schools to add education programs and gaining certification by the American Correctional Association.
Before the new books arrived at the center, Powell said the materials they had were so boring even he couldn’t read them.
“The only magazines were Golf Digest,” he said. He plans to add some more enticing subscriptions for next year.
“We’re not trying to minimize what these kids are here for,” he said. “Our job is to rehabilitate children.”
Published in The Messenger 12.26.07