By Elizabeth Stuart, Deseret News

For Utah’s youngest criminals, prison smells like potpourri.

Life is simple. Home is a 7-by-10 foot room with a bed, desk and bookshelves that look like they were probably poured out the back of the same cement truck. There’s a half-inch foam mat to make sleeping bearable and a stainless steel toilet in the corner. Through a slit-like window, children can watch the wind riffle through the sun-browned grass of a baseball field they built themselves. Here they dream about freedom and rue the decisions that sent them to the Decker Lake Youth Center to be locked up behind a stereotype-shattering, flimsy chain-link fence.

But life in the compound, a low-key brick building tucked behind a golf course at 2700 South in West Valley City, is mostly comfortable and laid back. Mornings and afternoons are spent learning about literature and algebra in classrooms not unlike those in nearby Granite School District. In the evenings the children gather in a homey rec room for group therapy with a motherly social worker, play basketball and — if there’s time — challenge one another to games of ping-pong. Here, there are no red-faced guards barking orders boot-camp style. Instead, gray-haired schoolteachers in cozy cardigans smile brightly at little vandals, robbers and knife-wielding gangsters and say things like, “These boys are my pride and joy.”

It is a far cry from the rat-infested juvenile detention centers that, for the past two decades, have been making U.S. headlines for jaw-dropping human rights violations like chaining youth to their beds 23 hours a day, beating them with bricks and forcing them to exercise without water. Homey, therapeutic Decker Lake Youth Center just might be a peek into the future of juvenile detention in the United States.

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