Avon Park, Florida — On the site of an Air Force Bombing range sit two correctional facilities. One, an adult state prison (Avon Park Correctional Institution), the other is Avon Park Youth Academy (APYA). The two have very different missions. APCI lock men up behind concrete walls and barbed wire fences. While the barbed wire fences are also present at APYA, the facility offers a new start in a unique environment for youth offenders. Securicor New Century operates the facility under contract with Florida’s Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ). The Academy, or the "community," as residents and administrators call it, takes a unique approach to juvenile corrections. Administrators insist they are not there to warehouse youth—rather to train them in independent living and work skills, helping them lead successful and productive lives.
In 1994, Air Force officials realized that the ongoing military base closures would impact Avon Park. At the same time DJJ realized they needed more youth offender residential capacity. The old military housing complex seemed like a perfect fit—retiring base personnel assisted in lobbying efforts so Highlands County could acquire the site. In August 1997, DJJ and Highlands County signed a 50-year lease. After issuing a conditional use permit a few months later, renovation on the site began. Costs were significantly reduced because prison labor from nearby APCI was used to complete the construction and renovation. In total the entire facility was constructed for the amount of money usually allocated for one a third its size, about four million dollars.
While DJJ needed new long term residential corrections facilities, there were no programs specifically designed for teens needing vocational education, job placement, and independent living skills training. With 85 percent of juvenile facilities privatized in Florida, DJJ again turned to the private sector for assistance. In the past, DJJ had used privatization and partnerships to develop new activities and programs—Avon Park presented them with an opportunity to innovate in the design and operation of the program.
The 39-acre community sits on the original base-housing complex. It consists of a 212-bed vocationally oriented, moderate risk, male delinquency commitment program. Offenders range from 16 to 18 years of age—and must be capable of completing a job apprenticeship.
Most juvenile programs are designed with family reunification in mind, and few facilities focus on older youth like Avon Park does. "A lot of kids who have no where to go, leave and go get an apartment, work and try to stay out of trouble…this program better situates them for success," said John Morgenthau, Securicor New Century’s Executive Vice President.
The youth live in duplex housing, or group homes, as they are called, with 6-8 living on each side.
Each group is responsible for living cooperatively and maintaining their home. They receive training in all living skills, including house cleaning, budgeting, activity planning, and laundry; they even prepare their own meals each weekend. Throughout their stay, youth attend skill-building groups including substance abuse, character education, problem-solving, and interaction skills. The daily schedule allows each youth a safe and supportive community in which to practice these skills and realistically get involved in activities similar to those of a more normal environment.
A typical day includes:
|6:00 am – 7:00 am||Wake-up/Personal Hygiene/House Cleaning|
|7:00 am – 7:30 am||House Meeting/House Goals|
|7:30 am – 8:00 am||Vocational and Educational Preparation|
|8:00 am – 4:00 pm||Vocational Training and Education/Lunch|
|4:00 pm – 5:00 pm||Independent Living Skills/Social Skills Group|
|5:00 pm – 6:00 pm||Recreation|
|6:00 pm – 7:00 pm||Dinner|
|7:00 pm – 8:00 pm||Homework/Assignments|
|8:00 pm – 9:00 pm||Town Electives|
|9:00 pm – 10:00 pm||Showers/House Clean-up/Snacks|
Ingrid Cheeves, Community Manager at Avon Park, left another juvenile institution and typifies the staff at AYPA, "I came here because the vocational training is real, it’s not just in theory." Youth are given hands on, real world training. The vocational training curricula are designed for a six-month training period—while the average stay at Avon Park is nine months. Securicor provides a variety of vocational training courses. Working with the Home Builders Institute (HBI), also offers vocational courses in construction trades. The trades were selected based on Florida Department of Labor studies into industry needs in the area, and include:
- Culinary Arts/Food Service
- Auto Detailing
- Building and Apartment Maintenance
Additionally, plans are underway to add a desktop publishing and computer networking vocational course once the software installation is complete. This program is scheduled to be operational by January 2001.
Throughout their stay, residents can earn additional privileges and responsibilities through program "phases"—Orientation, Trainee, Journeyman, and Skillsman. Promotion to a higher phase is determined by the youth’s progress in completing his individualized treatment goals in four (4) primary training areas—vocational, educational, community and daily living skills. If a youth is diligent and works consistently during his month of Orientation, he can earn promotion to Trainee and then Journeyman. These two phases provide six months of intensive vocational and on-the-job training, leading to a vocational trade certificate. Once he earns the final phase, Skillsman, he moves into the transition part of the program (generally his final two months). A Skillsman’s responsibilities are focused on working a paying job, demonstrating "soft" employment skills (i.e., promptness, productivity, appropriate dress, employer and coworker relations etc.), and completing all plans for release.
Cheeves boasts about the community’s self-sufficiency. The youth not only receive training in the classroom but also real-world experience inside this unique community. Under instructor supervision, the youth perform routine maintenance on the buildings and grounds and assist in the food preparation and service in the campus-dining hall. Recently, some of the youth had the opportunity to apply their vocational skills by refurbishing the kitchens in some of the housing units—including new cabinets, countertops, and tile.
The vocational classes have also built a carport (for the automotive classes), a tool shed, picnic tables, a pole barn, landscaped the grounds, and completely renovated a building for additional vocational classrooms and workshops. Residents are currently helping construct a 5,000 square foot vocational training building.
Besides working on the community grounds, some youth also earn real-world job training outside the facility. Several "School-to-Work" partnerships have been built with businesses in the area offering a unique opportunity to get experience and job training outside the facility’s fences.
DJJ encourages the Academy to develop income-producing businesses as part of the training—to help offset the costs of training and to provide the youth with the necessary resources to re-enter the community and workforce upon release. One such business is the Avon Lanes, a small bowling alley and snack bar on the grounds that was recently opened to the public.
With staff supervision, Avon Lanes is operated by youth that have earned their vocational certificate and now are tasked to demonstrate appropriate employability skills. Money the youth earn either goes toward restitution or into a savings account, to encourage and support integration back into the community after release. This forward-looking approach is unique, without it the youth would be left to fend for themselves without the necessary resources to succeed.
Home Builders Institute and Securicor do not turn their backs once the youth are released either. They are responsible for job placement as the youth leave the facility. Counselors are also placed in counties where youth are released to assist with transition into the community and the work force.
The training residents received at APYA also allow them to give back to the community. For example, Habitat for Humanity is turning an entire project over to APYA. Again, under the supervision of HBI instructors, the youth will be responsible for the complete construction of a home, including electrical and plumbing work to landscaping.
Services do not focus exclusively on vocational training; however, youth also receive an extensive regiment of primary educational training. Securicor contracts with neighboring Polk County School Board to provide teaching staff. The classrooms at Avon Park are well kept, freshly painted and clean. They also have a one-to-one computer-to-youth instruction ratio. Computer training is extensive in the areas of language and math literacy. Academic courses offer, youth an opportunity to earn their high school diploma or their GED. More than one in three do just that. To date, APYA has released 300 youth, with an average stay of 9 months. While their reading skills improve by 1.7 grade levels and math skills improve by 1.6 grade levels. Also, 98 percent of the youth complete the program and earn vocational trade certificates and 60 percent immediately enter the workforce after leaving the Academy.
- 300 youth have been released from APYA since inception, average stay is only 9 months.
- Average gains in reading and math grade levels is 1.7 and 1.6 respectively.
- 98 percent of youth successfully complete vocational training and receive certificates.
- 60 percent of youth enter the workforce immediately after leaving APYA.
While the community is friendly and residents receive respect, they are reminded daily that they made a mistake and are paying accordingly. Like any commitment facility, the youth do have restricted liberties. Pat down searches and shakedowns are commonplace, "they did commit a crime, that’s why we have the searches, fences and barbed wire," said Cheeves.
Despite the similarities to other youth facilities, Avon Park residents respond positively to the program and community they participate in. Their attitudes reflect confidence in the program and appreciation for improvements they are making in their lives. Respect is shown for facility staff, visitors, the facility itself, and other youth in the program.
One youth, Leo, recently received his high school diploma and an apprenticeship certificate in carpentry. He’s been fortunate enough to receive on the job training and expects to leave APYA with enough money to start over in the outside world.
Emilio and Jack, two other youth, have decided to stay at APYA after they are eligible for release. They completed the program’s academic and vocational components, both earning trade certificates in electricity. Provided an opportunity to continue their education, both are taking advantage by enrolling at South Florida Community College in computer training. While it’s impossible to say what these young men might do without APYA, it speaks highly of the program and staff for a youth to decide to stay "committed."
APYA gives participants a unique opportunity to take positive steps toward improving their lives. Even as this innovative program is unique in many ways, we all can learn from the APYA model. Morgenthau credits the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice for having the vision to create a facility like this. Moreover, the successful transition from offender to community member demonstrates the numerous opportunities that exist with public-private partnerships.
About the Author
Geoffrey Segal is the director of privatization and government reform at Reason Foundation.