The Last Kids Locked Up in Virginia
In 2016, Marquez Jackson, then 18 years old, pleaded guilty in a northern Virginia court to second-degree murder charges related to his involvement in a robbery. He was sentenced to juvenile confinement until age 21, when he’s expected to be released on probation. Many months into his sentence, his circumstances still haven’t sunk in: “When I wake up, I just instantly think I’m waking up [at] home,” he told me recently. Instead, “home” for the next two years is Bon Air Juvenile Correctional Center, the last youth-detention facility in the state of Virginia.
Jackson is one of 208 young people living at the center, located in the small town of Bon Air, a 20-minute drive from Richmond. As recently as 2005, the state had eight facilities like this one, housing more than 1,300 delinquent youth. But by 2017, after a series of reforms, that number had shrunk to one.
State leaders tout the shuttered facilities and declining population, but recidivism remains a problem.* According to data from the state Department of Juvenile Justice, in recent years more than 70 percent of Virginia's juvenile inmates were rearrested within three years of their release.** Stakeholders are now considering to what degree the nature of the facility is a contributing factor—from its isolated location to how prepared its young people are for reentry.
“It's not that you can't do good work here,” said Andy Block, who since 2014 has served as the juvenile-justice department’s director. “But the place itself and the design and the size and the location are barriers to doing good work.”
In recent months, I spent time with three young people, including Jackson, who’ve witnessed the state’s juvenile-justice system up close. Jackson, now 19, just began his second year at Bon Air. Darrynun Mabry, also 19, avoided time by participating in a new diversion program funded by Block’s department. And 21-year-old Zhacori Bates now lives on her own after spending two years in Bon Air. Taken together, their stories paint a picture of what life in the system is like—and what problems are outside the scope of existing reforms.
To best view the video profiles, use a VR headset with audio.
Marquez Jackson lives in a maximum-security unit that was added to Bon Air in the 1990s at the height of “superpredator” paranoia. Reflecting the attitudes of the time, it was built with a single-minded focus on security. Now, its harsh design is a source of frustration for Block—not to mention the inmates themselves.
“Our residential units look a lot like adult units. They're very hard,” said Block, who toured me around Bon Air’s campus. “When they were built, they weren't built with treatment space in mind.”
Since becoming director, Block has worked with the nonprofit Annie E. Casey Foundation to integrate a new treatment model—one that includes daily therapy and allows residents to decorate their rooms. (Jackson, for one, has covered almost his entire cell with art, poetry, and pictures of his heroes—Tupac, Salt-N-Pepa, and Nas among them. “Once they saw I could draw, they kind of let me do whatever I wanted,” he said.) But the setting itself presents limitations for rehabilitative work. Block told me the inmates undergo therapy in empty cells, a less-than-ideal circumstance. “When you take kids who've been traumatized,” he said, “it's not a place to kind of calm them down and help them open up to the work that they really need to do to change their lives.”
Bon Air’s isolation is also an issue. As with about 75 percent of Bon Air’s inmates, Jackson’s loved ones live over an hour away, which can make visiting difficult. “At the end of the day, we're about public safety, but when it comes to kids, public safety and rehabilitation are kind of inextricably linked,” said Block during our tour. “Doing [rehabilitation] often involves also working with their families.”
Given Bon Air’s constraints, Block took steps in 2017 to replace it with a new facility, a 60-bed space southwest of the city of Chesapeake, roughly 25 minutes from the cities where most inmates come from: Norfolk, Hampton, and Newport News. He showed me mockups of what he wanted it to look like, with large windows, carpets, and drywall instead of bricks. A facility in this area would mean only 25 percent of incarcerated youth would live more than an hour’s drive from their families.
However, the proposal hit a roadblock when it was rejected by the Chesapeake city council in November following opposition from some locals. And it wasn’t universally accepted by reformers, either. I visited the proposed location with Valerie Slater, coordinator for RISE for Youth, a Richmond-based nonprofit focused on juvenile-justice reform in the state. As we walked around the site—a former military base—Slater explained why her organization is against Block’s plan: The proposed facility is still much too big, and it’s far from the kind of amenities that would ease family visits.
“This is literally in the middle of nowhere,” she said, pointing at the surrounding fields. “There is no public transportation. When [visiting families] need food, there are no restaurants. There are no hotels.” Her group favors opening small facilities in every community, which she said would mitigate recidivism. The state’s plan, she said, would only continue to isolate “the young people from the folks they need to really rehabilitate.”
Watch The Atlantic’s documentary on Virginia’s efforts to close Bon Air.
One reason why Virginia was able to scale down its detention facilities is its longtime use of diversion programs. In 2004 and 2009, the Code of Virginia was amended to grant intake officers greater discretion to decide young people’s sentences; they could assign those with lesser offenses to probation or community service, or send them to independent living programs in their own communities. In 2017, 80 percent of juvenile offenders were eligible for diversion plans.
Darrynun Mabry was one of them. Last year, he was caught, and charged for, bringing a gun to school. Instead of being sent to Bon Air, he was enrolled in the Tidewater Youth Services’ Apartment Living Program in Virginia Beach, some 45 minutes away from his hometown. Through the program, which began in 2016, the state rents a block of apartments in the city for young offenders to build independent living skills under the supervision of counseling staff. Mabry will spend the remainder of 2018 there before his case is up for review. Meanwhile, he is enrolled in the HVAC program at a nearby college and works at a local deli.
Growing up in a housing project, Mabry told me, he felt he had no option but to carry a gun to protect himself and his sister. “See, where I'm from, leaving the house with your gun is like leaving your house with your shoes,” he said. “It's just something you don't leave the house without if you've got it.”
He thinks that if more young people participated in a diversion program like his, instead of going to Bon Air, the state could cut down on recidivism. “They send kids to Bon Air, then they put ’em back in the same area,” Mabry said. “They gonna end up getting sucked back into that; they gonna get locked up again.”
For young people in detention, coming home can be one of the biggest challenges, because they’re often returned to lower-income households in neighborhoods with higher-than-average crime rates. Zhacori Bates, who spent two years in Bon Air, told me the young people in her neighborhood were almost incentivized to return to the facility. “A lot of kids, they go home and come back multiple times,” she said. “Some say it’s because they have three meals a day, they have clothes on their back, they don’t have to worry about where they’re going to lay their heads.”
This is the crux of the recidivism problem, according to Slater, and it could be helped by greater investment in the kids’ neighborhoods. “I have yet to understand why we would not want to pour resources into the communities that need them,” she told me.
Underserved neighborhoods can also erode the skills young people learn in detention. As Slater described it, Bon Air’s inmates are gaining the right skills in the wrong place. “They [are learning] how to act and react in a setting that is far removed from where they live,” she said. Once they return to unstable surroundings, their rehabilitative work can fall apart.
Now 21 years old and living in her own apartment, Bates described her old neighborhood in Newport News as very violent. The city “had a lot of shootings, fights, and people dealing drugs. And being a kid, you shouldn't see stuff like that,” Bates said. “Personally, I think [the] average kid, it messes them up mentally, because that's traumatizing.” At age 18, she said, she was involved in a robbery in which her friend was shot and killed. She was released from Bon Air last fall after spending two-and-a-half years there. (The Atlantic could not independently confirm details of her case because her criminal record is sealed.)
Bates attributes her progress so far to her personal independence—she told me she found her own apartment, got a job in retail, and is in the process of enlisting in the military. She thinks her path isn’t necessarily realistic for other kids at Bon Air. “I mean, how can you help the 16-year-old that all their life, all they know is violence?” she asked. “You can't just swoop in and say, ‘Stop doing what you're doing.’ It's not going to work.”
With his Chesapeake plan stalled, Block has focused on another proposal: a new, 60-bed facility in the Hampton Roads region. He also wants to transform the 272-bed Bon Air into a much smaller 96-bed facility, with the same “soft” design as the one in Chesapeake. Slater’s group RISE for Youth has already launched a campaign opposing both measures, citing their size and location.
For now, at least, the last kids in Bon Air will be staying there a while. Jackson, who has two years left, told me he feels resigned. “The thing that makes me happy is just visualizing what I could be doing if I was home,” he said.
* This article originally stated that Virginia has one of the highest recidivism rates in the country. This characterization was based on incomplete data. ↩
** The article also stated that the three-year rearrest rate for current Bon Air inmates would be 74 percent. This was the rate for former juvenile inmates in Virginia in 2014. We regret the errors. ↩