Can the Design of L.A.’s New Juvenile Detention Facility Change the Future of Youth Incarceration?

Malibu’s Campus Kilpatrick detention facility aims to be a national model for juvenile justice through a humanizing architecture.

Campus Kilpatrick Los Angeles
Courtesy Chip Allen

Overlooking Malibu, in the midst of the Santa Monica Mountains’ vineyard-dotted landscape, lies Los Angeles County’s $48 million wager on the future of youth incarceration.

Campus Kilpatrick opened its doors in July, replacing a 1960s complex known as Camp Vernon Kilpatrick. California lawmakers voted to allocate County funds to demolish and rebuild the dilapidated detention facility and its harsh, barracks-style quarters.

Instead of opting for a facelift, L.A.County chose to transform the experience of these interned young people through dialectical behavior therapy, vocational training, and apprenticeships all aimed at promoting post-incarceration success and reducing recidivism. “The state-of-the-art design supports the state-of-the-art programming,” says Dave Mitchell, the county’s acting deputy director. This ethos informs a new “L.A. Model” of youth detention that rejects a punitive, boot-camp incarceration style in favor of therapeutic support for its often traumatized occupants.

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The L.A. Model even extends to staff hires: Only those who request to work at Kilpatrick are considered for placement. Before staff members even arrive at the facility, they train as a team. Probation officials involved labor unions early in the process to ensure its implementation.

To help formulate this new vision, those on the Kilpatrick project made trips to a site in Missouri that pioneered a therapeutic model for kids caught up in the criminal justice system. Advisory committees that conducted the initial planning included a diverse group of voices, ranging from young people impacted by the correctional system and their families, to national research experts and probation officers.

DLR Group, the winning architecture firm selected to design the facility, worked directly with L.A.County to develop a scheme that supported the programming. Mitchell says, “The goal was to try to establish the best programming in L.A. County” for some of the most high-risk, high-need kids.

Campus Kilpatrick Los Angeles
Courtesy Chip Allen

The campus’ layout encourages rehabilitation by instilling in its occupants a sense of pride. This is best demonstrated in Kilpatrick’s multi-purpose commons—easily the architectural gem of the site. Sunlight floods the space through a floor-to-ceiling convex glass facade of blue-tinted, Tetris-esque square windows. The room looks anything but institutional and can be quickly reconfigured for dining, trade education, outside programming, or family visits.

In order to minimize the harsh visual impact of perimeter hurricane fencing, much of the campus is cordoned off by buildings. This is achieved by conjoining most of the eastern structures on site. The complex’s reception desk, waiting room, and “command post” are consolidated in between administrative offices, staff housing, and the common room. While the command post has the entire campus in view, it is the anti-panopticon, “accountable” to visitors by being completely visible from inside the waiting area. “Hello, my best friends!” exclaimed campus director Katheyn Beigh on a recent campus tour. 

North of the reception area, the multi-purpose commons opens to kitchen facilities, job training areas, and a large gymnasium linked to classrooms on the northern edge of the site. This barrier of structure allows staff, visitors, and families to efficiently circulate without having to go outside.

The stage at the northern end of the gymnasium is designed to be used in reverse: it can transform from an indoor performance space into an outdoor amphitheater that faces the school quadrangle. The custom upholstered furniture and tables in the elliptical common room are fixed to locking wheels, allowing staff to quickly reorganize the space for dining, family visits, or group activities. In the coming months, community-based organizations will lead performing arts workshops designed to help heal trauma. “A lot of these kids can’t talk about the abuse that’s happened to them, but they’ll write a play, or poetry, or rap,” says L.A. County supervisor Sheila Kuehl. During the site visit, multiple staff members raved about a Shakespeare rap one of the students had recently performed.

Campus Kilpatrick Los Angeles
Courtesy Chip Allen

Detainee housing was designed with as much dignity as the rest of the campus. A cottage-style housing model is employed with small-group therapy in mind. Clusters of 24 students occupy each of the six cottages, with private pods of 12 on each side. At present, one of the cottages is currently in use: probation aims to move in 24 kids every six months until the facility reaches its capacity of 120.

Compared to the dense 1960s bunk barracks, the new sleeping arrangements are surprisingly generous, more akin to ski lodges than a detention facility. Six twin beds, each with private locked storage, are spaced comfortably apart in an airy bright room. Laundry machines in the common areas are for inmate use, as they are permitted to wear and wash their own clothing – unheard of in most juvenile facilities. A small, fenced-in private courtyard and basketball hoop is left unlocked for residents who might want to let off steam.

With so many thoughtful details, the cottage living model communicates in every aspect the goal of treating adolescents humanely. “Design was prioritized,” says architect Andrew Cupples of DLR Group. “They can institutionalize the past, or they can envision the future.”

Complaints that the project squanders taxpayer dollars by pampering delinquents may prove short sighted. If successful, the L.A. Model could be replicated throughout the county and state as a lasting way to reduce juvenile crime. Already, plans to employ the cottage model and staff hiring practices are underway at another facility.

“It’s not supposed to be a jail. These are kids,” says Kuehl. “If you feel like you are treated like a real human being and therefore are worth doing good, then you might not recidivate.”

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