Week 1:
Getting Started at Detention


Arthur Vining Davis Fellow in Adolescent Psychology

Linn County Juvenile Detention Center | Cedar Rapids, Iowa

September 2, 2018

This first week at the Linn County Juvenile Detention Center (referred to as “the Center”) has been a whirlwind of meeting new people and learning so many new things. I began my first shift with a full tour of the facility. At first glance from the outside, the Center doesn’t look like much, and I soon learned that this is intentional. The objective is to keep the kids from being apprehensive to enter, and to remove many stereotypical features of what a juvenile detention center “looks like”. The only indication I was in the right place on my first day was a little gold plaque right next to the door. On the inside, the story is much the same. Except for placards on every door, the thickness of windows, and the ominous buzzing of the door locks, it doesn’t look like “juvi”. The rooms are clean, open, and for the most part, just like a high school. The one exception are the suicide prevention/holding rooms, designed for aggressive suicidal residents. My night shift supervisor, Tom, walked me through every room and detailed what their purposes were, as well as what my role in them would be.

Detention Plague
Detention Plague

For the most part, I would be wherever the kids were. Each day I’m assigned to shadow staff in one of the living units, called  “pods,” and I follow them and the residents in that pod throughout the shift. Rooms used for intake of new residents, the control room, and the holding cells would seldom be seen by me, and rooms, the pods, the dining hall, the gym, and the classrooms is where I spend most of my time.

Birch Living Pod
Birch Living Pod

After spending the first day in the staff briefing room reading about safety, procedure, etc., I began my second day fully shadowing a pod. All the pods are named after trees, and my first experience was in Walnut. My trainer was Roxanne, a six-year veteran of the Center, and she had no hesitations about throwing me in as soon as I learned something. She had me interacting with the residents in games, participating in gym, and even giving and taking points from their “point cards”. These point cards are still the most complicated part of the job so far.

The Center operates on a positive-reinforcement behavior management program. Their philosophy is that punishing negative behavior only is not effective in changing behaviors. Instead they focus on reinforcing positive behaviors, ignoring bad behaviors, and using as few punishments as possible. The system is also based on choices. From their intake, the kids are made aware of opportunities to earn points, but only if they choose to do so, nobody would force them to perform the behaviors that will earn them points. However, they will not have certain privileges if they choose not to earn points. The points are like money; every day each resident receives a new card and has ample opportunity throughout the day to earn points to spend on privileges later. For example, waking up on time, being on time to class, participating in class and in planned daily activities, and good behavior during structured time periods will all earn them points. They also can seek out extra points by doing pod chores and other voluntary activities they may choose to do or not.

My trainer Roxanne and I
My trainer Roxanne and I

For a new intern like myself, it was intimidating and complicated to begin learning and enacting on day 2 what can earn residents points (and how many), what they could spend points on (and how many points it cost them), and to remember when those points could be given or used. I made more than a few mistakes, but no one got upset with me, and Roxanne explained what went wrong and how to do better next time. It was a lot to take in, but she was right; by my fifth shift I felt much more confident in interacting with those in my assigned pod, utilizing the point system, and enforcing rules.

Weekday Punch Card
Weekday Point Card

Overall, at the end of my first week, I have made incredible progress. I’ve started the process of building trust with the residents of the Center, I’ve learned many of the policies, schedules, and rules, and most importantly I’ve enjoyed my time here. It has gone better than I could have ever expected, and while I know not every day will be smooth sailing while working with juvenile delinquents, I am proud of myself and of the work I am doing. Next week, I’ll continue building these relationships, learning my responsibilities, and begin designing my research project!

Jamie Rhoads