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Union County Juvenile Detention Centre, Linden, New Jersey, United States

Tuesday 04 Jan 2011

A positive approach to young offenders

Union County Juvenile Detention Centre by Ricci Greene Associates in Linden, New Jersey, United States
Union County Juvenile Detention Centre by Ricci Greene Associates in Linden, New Jersey, United States Union County Juvenile Detention Centre by Ricci Greene Associates in Linden, New Jersey, United States Union County Juvenile Detention Centre by Ricci Greene Associates in Linden, New Jersey, United States Union County Juvenile Detention Centre by Ricci Greene Associates in Linden, New Jersey, United States Union County Juvenile Detention Centre by Ricci Greene Associates in Linden, New Jersey, United States
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Detention centre provides a sanctuary for children and a beacon of hope 

The Union County Juvenile Detention Centre is a secure facility for delinquent youth awaiting the action of the juvenile courts. This facility transcends stereotypes. It has been described as 'optimism that belies the building type'. The building is colourful, flooded with sunlight, and offers a variety of spaces for programmes, services, recreation and sanctuary. “This is a beautiful building that provides kids in trouble with a secure, safe, comfortable and positive place to overcome their problems,” says Frank Guzzo, Director of Human Services, “if it wasn’t a correctional facility, it would make a great school.”

Not 'How Big', but 'How Small' – A Systems Approach: The first step in the process was establishing the bedspace capacity for the new facility. To do so, the planning and design team conducted a comprehensive juvenile justice system analysis, where we evaluated local juvenile justice policies and court functioning, measured the impact on the use of detention, and recommended several reforms and initiatives aimed at reducing the number of committals and the length of stay for youth. “Ricci Greene’s only business is justice”, notes Guzzo. “They don’t see the building as just a building, but as one of many components in the juvenile justice system”.

Recommendations such as streamlining court caseload processing, establishing alternatives to detention, improving agency efficiency and standardizing operational policies and procedures provided the County with a holistic response that reduced the reliance on secure detention. The result? A 17% reduction in the number of beds required (from 90 to 75); a smaller building footprint, reduced energy consumption; fewer youth exposed to secure confinement through 'least restrictive setting' alternatives and better services for court-involved youth.

Effective Building Environment: The Union County Juvenile Detention Centre reflects our belief that correctional architecture has a social dimension – that there should be something redemptive about the design. The facility combines sociology, demographics, technology and design to elevate and improve those who must spend time there. The new building has a secure yet normative environment intended to create a positive atmosphere for both youth and staff based on the premise that 'environment cues behaviour'.

In fact, facility Superintendent Gregory Lyons noted a marked change in the demeanour of its staff with the opening of the new centre, remarking that 'they are now proud of their building and the work that they are doing with kids'. A direct supervision concept - where staff are posted directly in the living units, provides opportunities for meaningful interaction and mentoring, elevating officers from 'guards' to role models affecting positive behavioural change.

Supporting the concept of normative environment, residents are assigned to single bedrooms rather than open dormitories; hand rails and doors are made of wood instead of metal and toilets and sinks are separate from sleeping rooms, as they would be in a home. “Assaultive incidents are no longer a daily occurance like in the old facility”, remarks the Superintendent - anecdotal evidence that the new facility promotes a calmer atmosphere and positive behavioural expectations for residents – a sanctuary with order, rules and safety.

Positive Youth Development: The facility provides numerous opportunities for positive youth development through school, counseling, family involvement, recreational programmes and volunteer contact – activities that were all but impossible to achieve in the small, outmoded and dismal facility located atop a parking garage. In stark contrast, the new detention centre dedicates almost 40% of the building to programming and service delivery: multiple classrooms, counseling offices and group rooms located at the living unit level, 40,000 sq ft of indoor and outdoor recreation areas, and varied, ample spaces for family visits and volunteer involvement. “Today," says the Director of Human Services, “incarceration is secondary. It’s programmes, programmes, programmes; you’ve got a captive audience that will eventually return to the community”.

Normative and Sustainable: The mayor of Linden, New Jersey welcomed the new 72,000 sq ft youth centre in his city, with one condition: “I don’t want to see any fencing around this building”. The design response to the mayor’s injunction is a 'thin' building - only one room deep - that wraps completely around a one-acre outdoor courtyard. Onerous and inhumane security fencing was eliminated by using the building perimeter as the secure enclosure required by good practice. This feature provides a more normative environment for the youth residing there, and it makes the building a good neighbour to the surrounding community.

The facility’s architectural elements are also aligned with the mixed-use commercial and big box industrial buildings that surround it. While the facility is over-scaled to blend with these surroundings, human-scale elements are interspersed in support of the people-orientated function of the facility - terrazzo floors, glass walls, a rich colour palette and texture are noticeable architectural elements of the building.

As a 'thin' building the design allows light into classrooms and living units from both the exterior and the corridor side. Ten-foot-wide corridors surrounding the courtyard are open to daylight and ample enough to ensure excellent sightlines. Raked roofs above the dayrooms open to the south to allow day lighting all year long; creative use of glass brick provides secure enclosure and allows daylight to enter the 16-bed living units; small recreation patios adjacent to each dayroom allow daylight to penetrate to the floor and provide a view to the outside.

The positive physiological effects of daylight have been documented. Views to the outside have been shown to improve healing rates and daylighting improves test scores, productivity and retail scales. Here, the Assistant Superintendent gave a simple assessment of the day-to-day impact, saying: "the building is full of natural light and views to the outside, and after a while it dawned on me – I no longer go home with a headache every day".

By day and by night the building brightens its occupants. By day, ample natural light and views to the exterior through expansive security glass panels connect occupants to the outside world. Passage of time is marked by moving shadows and sunlight falling into spaces. Remarked another staff about the abundant daylight, 'this is just what these kids need'. By night, the light emanating from the gymnasium and the great hoods over the living unit creates a glowing island of respite and calm.

Transition Begins at Admission: The majority of youth placed in the Union County Juvenile Detention Facility will return to their home communities, and best practice research has demonstrated the importance of community and family involvement in preparing for successful re-entry. In the old facility, volunteerism was virtually non-existent due to lack of space and the overall dismal environment. Today, the new facility is teeming with volunteers, a testament to both the desire of the local community to engage with troubled youth and the importance of providing places and spaces within the facility for them to do so.

An open reception desk and wall murals in the lobby are welcoming elements for visitors and volunteers that minimize the correctional nature of the facility, and multi-purpose rooms are available for a variety of volunteer-supported activities. A recent issue of the facility’s volunteer newsletter highlights an impressive blend of special and weekly programmes including outdoor movies, talent shows, International Night, cultural groups, religious programmes, arts, yoga, book club and the facility garden. These restorative activities promote responsibility, accountability, self respect and positive youth development. But one youth resident summed it up best by saying: "your services made me realise that I was damaging my community when I could be contributing better to it... you help us find guidance in our ways... I really want to get out and help others in bad predicaments... thank you".


The Union County Juvenile Detention Centre is a calming sanctuary. The designed environment provides sunlight, views to the outside, colour, texture and other normative features shown to have a positive impact on mood and behaviour. The facility offers alternatives to deviant behaviour by providing a variety of spaces that support interaction between youth, mentors and community volunteers – interactions that promote positive behavioural change and have been demonstrated to help youth successfully transition back to the community upon release. This benefits youth by keeping them from 'graduating' to the adult system and helps keep communities sustainable.


Technological innovations replace overt signs of security, in keeping with the non-institutional demeanour of the building. High-impact glass replaces steel-barred windows, staff members access and exit areas of the building using swipe cards, avoiding the clanging of keys and doors typically associated with correctional facilities.


A systems approach to sustainable justice reduces the demand on the built environment by looking to the larger juvenile justice system and limiting the use of secure detention through innovative interventions. In this project, down-sizing the owner’s perceived needs based on a responsible juvenile justice system analysis prior to design reduced the facility capacity from 90 beds to 75 beds, the equivalent of one 8,000 sq ft living unit - and its carbon footprint. A number of environmentally-sustainable concepts were applied throughout the building, both prominent and understated, including abundant use of natural light, radiant heating in floors, and underground cisterns to control storm water runoff.

Key Facts

Status Completed
Value 0(m€)
Ricci Greene Associates

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