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Mr. Schindler, a lawyer with a background in youth advocacy, trudged across an overgrown field of grass and weeds, cautioning his visitors to be on the lookout for snakes. A tall fence topped with 15- to 20-foot-high coils of razor wire surrounds a low, wide brick building and a brown barracks-style facility and a metal trailer that used to contain dorm rooms.

He was eager to talk about how bad things had gotten at Oak Hill before the D.C. Council mandated its closure. He talked of overcrowding, abuse and lack of community programming. Inside the facility, he described a world where dozens of youths would be housed in daylong lockdown situations, or in groupings that mixed kids of differing status — endangering less violent ones and enticing the more violent to take advantage of others.

“There would be a television in a cage that would be blaring, 20 jaws broken per month and staff with little training,” he said. “It was an environment that can best be described as loud, chaotic and toxic.”

Individual rooms resembled jail cells, with metal furniture, toilets and sinks. Down the hall were day rooms where kids could socialize. In the middle of each unit was a security glass-enclosed office for staff that had bad sight lines and blind spots, Mr. Schindler said.

“Kids peed and crapped on the floor if they did not have a toilet in their room and couldn’t get out,” he said. “There was nothing good going on.”

A 1985 lawsuit known widely as the Jerry M. case represented a class of detained and committed children confined at the District’s facilities for juveniles and contended that the city and various city officials failed to provide appropriate care, rehabilitation and treatment. The agency is still under the purview of a court monitor, but conditions at Oak Hill remained dismal for decades until its closure.

A short distance from the decrepit former juvenile jail, New Beginnings practically sparkles in the sunshine of a bright clear day. The concept was to build a facility that is smaller, more homelike and based on a group rehabilitative process, Mr. Schindler said. “It’s got to be clean, safe and orderly or you can forget rehabilitation,” he said.

Kids are housed 20 to a unit at New Beginnings. Each unit is comprised of two, 10-person pods for kids who sleep in carpeted dorm rooms with blackboards, desks and chairs and secure windows that let in air and light. The units feature wood beams on the ceilings and exposed ventilation. There are works of art on the painted walls, carpeting and recreational options including a pingpong table. The dorm room furniture and the chairs and sofas in the common areas are made from wood and upholstery.

While Oak Hill had a school, gymnasium and cafeteria all located in separate buildings with the unintended consequence of creating angles and hiding spots, New Beginnings features a more integrated layout that lends an open, campuslike feel to the place. The outdoor recreational areas are connected by landscaped paths that are well-lit at night. A pristine asphalt basketball court with nylon nets on the hoops looks brand new.

The gymnasium has wood floors, bleachers and Plexiglas backboards at each end of the basketball court.

“We don’t want them to feel like it’s a prison, even though they are locked up,” Mr. Schindler said.

Awaiting placement

The kids involved in the Arizona melee landed at New Beginnings while DYRS officials decided where to put them next. Four of them promptly escaped.

Much of the trouble that reportedly has come from New Beginnings — a rash of early escapes from the facility, property damage and a riot among the detained youths — has been from the population that is awaiting placement. In most cases, those are youths who had their community placement revoked or were rearrested for violent offenses.

Last month, New Beginnings had a population that was 10 over its capacity, at 70 youths — 29 of whom were “awaiting placement.”

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