Facility falls to new philosophy in treating young offenders

Boy's Totem Town in St. Paul, Minn. on Thursday, Aug. 1, 2019. After decades as Ramsey County's male juvenile corrections facility, Boy's Totem Town is closing down. (Jean Pieri/St. Paul Pioneer Press via AP)

By TAD VEZNER St. Paul Pioneer Press
ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Gerald Settles walks through the rooms at Boys Totem Town holding a thick ring of keys. There’s hardly anyone around. Even those patrolling the grounds are private security, now, rather than county correctional staffers. The last two boys left last month.
The assistant superintendent of what’s arguably the most well-known juvenile correctional facility in the Twin Cities opens door after door upon empty room after empty room. They’re littered with the occasional collection of boxes, pictures from the walls piled in corners, square-shaped fades in the white and gray paint above them.
Multiple framed and poster-sized copies of the inspirational poem “Hey Black Child” contrast with older, black-and-white photos of mostly white kids farming, tossing hay, fishing.
After 106 years, Totem Town is officially vacant.
“This is definitely different, not having the kids, seeing the kids. It used to be full, 22 kids per room. It was crazy, man, seeing that many at one time,” said Settles, who’s been working various jobs at Totem Town for 15 years.
“I’m sure it saved a lot of kids’ lives. We couldn’t save all of them, but a lot of them.”
The closing of Totem Town — a Ramsey County facility nestled in 70 acres of woods in St. Paul’s Highwood neighborhood — is the most notable recent effect of the “alternative to incarceration” ideology that took root in the county over a decade ago.
It was a shift from the ideology of the 1980s and 1990s, when fear of juveniles as “superpredators” grew, culminating with the Columbine High School massacre. Police were placed with unprecedented frequency in schools, creating an equally unprecedented pipeline to jails.
By 1999, the number of kids behind bars doubled from the previous decade. In turn, lawsuits over detention center conditions resulted in a full fifth of their beds put under some kind of court order by the late 1990s.
Ramsey County officials grew worried about the trend — both at Totem Town and at their downtown juvenile detention center.
In 2005, they initiated the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative, and by 2012, the number of young offenders admitted to the downtown center dropped from about 3,500 to just under 1,000.
The trend attracted national attention, experts noted at the time.
“People point to Ramsey County, not just because the numbers have gone down so precipitously but because the community engagement is at a much higher and sustained level than you’d see in a lot of other places,” Bart Lubow, then-director of the juvenile justice strategy group for the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a national nonprofit devoted to disadvantaged youth, said in a 2012 interview.
Some law enforcement officials worried about the practice — particularly the idea of letting felony-level offenders out so easily, regardless of age. Those placed in Totem Town, aged 14 to 18, all committed felony offenses.
But proponents pointed to the numbers.
Over the same 2005 to 2012 time frame, St. Paul arrests of juveniles for what the FBI defines as “serious crimes” — from aggravated assault to burglary and motor vehicle theft — decreased from 991 to 707, according to a Pioneer Press analysis.
Juvenile prosecution referrals to the county attorney’s office also decreased, from 5,077 to 3,962.
More recent statistics since 2012 haven’t shown any reversal of that trend. If anything, it’s intensified: Prosecution referrals to the county further dropped to 1,977 by last year.
The trickle-down result affected Totem Town. In the last four years alone, the county’s 125 juveniles placed in “out-of-home” facilities dropped to just 32.
In early July, there were just two. And then, on July 11, there were none.
In Totem Town’s empty rooms, there are echoes of the ideological transition everywhere.
When walking past the “special housing unit” — a half-dozen or so isolation cells, big enough for a kid to lie down, take a few paces, but not much else — Settles said, “We stopped putting kids in here, thought it was doing more damage, harming them more than helping them, putting them in a small room for hours. . . . It was just way too much.”
They still did it with extreme cases, he adds, almost apologetically — violent outbursts where simple staff supervision couldn’t cut it.
Kohler Hall itself is a testament to the ideological shift.
The only major building set apart from the main complex, it was built in 1994 to accommodate the sudden overflow of kids that couldn’t be held in the double-bunked Juvenile Detention Center downtown.
“JDC used to be packed, so they started bringing them,” Settles told the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
You can see the way it’s built: for security, with concrete and hard corners, access ways like gates, more like a jail or holding facility. Which it was. All for the couple of dozen kids and teens awaiting court dates.
The building was the first to stop getting regular use. Once the overflow from downtown dried up, it was used for orientation, then a day treatment program, then nothing.
“You reflect on it,” Settles said a couple of times, walking through the empty rooms.
“The whole thing now is finding out what they like doing. . . . Get away from punishing them. It takes a while for them to trust you, to try to see how much you care about them.
“A lot of the kids never showed signs of that trust, ever.”
It’s hard not to notice the reflexive optimism in Settles’ words.
“They know we care, but they’re so hardened they don’t know how to express that. . . . It always sticks with me how much they say they don’t want to be here, but then they get here. . . . I’d see them on the street, later, and they’ll come up to me. Tell me how much we helped them.”
He’s never heard otherwise, he said
Totem Town’s history dates to 1907, when the Legislature authorized the building of boys detention centers in three counties, including Ramsey. The following year, the county opened the Parental School and Detention Home at 509 Lafayette Ave. in St. Paul.
By 1913, it moved the home to an 80-acre farm on the rural southeast side of the city. In the following decades, the boys who lived there worked that farm — tending cows, pigs, chickens and crops. When not working they played sports, swam, ice skated, tobogganed.
In the late 1920s, the county built a brick schoolhouse; in the 1930s, a dormitory. A gym and classrooms followed.
Finally, in 1957, the facility’s name was changed to Boys Totem Town, after a decades-long practice of having the boys carve totem poles out of dead trees on the grounds.
The practice stopped — current administrators aren’t sure when — and images of the totem poles are now seen as a bit of a problem. T-shirts were discontinued. The history of non-Native American kids carving totem poles didn’t sit well with local tribal communities.
But a single totem pole remains, by the front entrance of the facility. Like the rest of the 80 acres, its future is uncertain.
County officials say other facilities — including one in Red Wing — will be able to house juvenile offenders. And they don’t anticipate any kind of surge.
But the county has no concrete plans for the concrete and brick Totem Town facility — with its sprawling complex and outbuildings, sports fields, garden. Whether any of that will be torn down remains unclear.
For years, county corrections officials have complained about how dated it all is — the need for renovations that were rarely funded. Still, some of the complex is newer: thick, wooden overhead beams contrasting with the labyrinthine mix of sheetrock and concrete blocks that makes much of the building’s interior.
All surrounded by 70 acres of woodland.
The first stage of what county officials promise will be an “extensive community outreach process” has yet to be scheduled. There’s been some talk about a park, or a place to house the homeless.
A commemorative event is slated for 1:30 p.m. Aug. 14.
Speeches are planned, with county commissioners and other “electeds,” along with corrections and law enforcement leaders, in attendance.
The public is welcome, and former residents and staffers are encouraged to come, county officials say.
But they should RSVP by sending an email to maryjo.dupre@co.ramsey.mn.us.
“A lot of people are wondering what they’ll do with it. Old building, man, it’s an old building,” Settles said. “But it’s meant so much to a lot of those kids. And a lot of us.”
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Information from: St. Paul Pioneer Press, http://www.twincities.com