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Gritty and pink

A juvenile detention center in Tampa is testing theories about the soothing effects of a certain shade of pink.

Published June 8, 2005

[Times photo: Chris Zuppa]
Senior Detention Officer Matthew Barfield stands inside the Pink Room at the Hillsborough Regional Juvenile Detention Center West. Anthony Schembri, secretary of the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice, hopes that rooms will reduce the number of hard to manage youths and the use of force in juvenile facilities.

TAMPA - Young people committed to juvenile detention centers have been known to scream, cuss, fight and generally lose control.

Detention officers calm them through reason, advice, counseling and, in some cases, force.

Now the Hillsborough Regional Juvenile Detention Center West has begun using another tool: color.

Strange as it sounds, out-of-control youths in the Tampa facility and two others around Florida are sometimes being put in special cells that have been painted pink.

Not just any pink, but a precise shade known as "Baker-Miller Pink" - kind of like Pepto-Bismol, only deeper.

The young inmates in the Tampa center stay for 15 minutes in the pink cell, which includes a toilet and a bunk with no mattress.

It's part of a study on whether this special shade of pink really calms inmates, as some research suggests.

Anthony Schembri, secretary of the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice, said he knows that many people will smirk at the notion that paint on the wall can change human behavior. But his job, he said, is to seek solutions to problems, even if they sound strange.

"Government needs to experiment," Schembri said. "That's why there are no Nobel Prizes in government, because we don't experiment, because we're too afraid. "

Schembri said that he asked for "elbow room" when Gov. Jeb Bush picked him last year to head DJJ.

"And that's the exact word I used, to do these kind of things," he said. "Matter of fact, he teases me sometimes. He says, "Hi Anthony, how's the elbow room?"'

Schembri is a former police chief from Rye, N.Y., who was the model for the 1990s TV show The Commish . He also has been commissioner for the New York City Department of Corrections.

Schembri said that when he came to DJJ , one of his first concerns was that too many inmates were being injured.

"In New York, I had inmates who were assaulting my officers," he said. "In here, I have officers assaulting juveniles. It was just the opposite."

So he began looking for ways to reduce the use of force in juvenile facilities throughout the state, he said.

He had heard about the potential calming effects of pink rooms years ago. He used the technique at Rikers Island in New York and suggested trying it here.

The department has relied in part on a paper published in the International Journal of Biosocial Research in 1981, which suggested that Baker-Miller Pink could suppress aggression. The research gained some notoriety in the 1980s end even was featured on the television show That's Incredible . That segment was used to train DJJ officers in the program.

"I have encountered skeptics, but the thing is, it does seem to work," said Sherry Jackson, a department researcher. More research is needed, she said, which is why DJJ is carefully documenting the effect of the pink rooms on the youths.

Jackson said the process works like this:

If a youth acts out uncontrollably at one of the three centers experimenting with the program, officers will take all the usual steps to calm him down. If those don't work, officers can take the youth to the pink room. One pink cell has been set up at the Hillsborough Regional Juvenile Detention Center West, and others have been established at facilities in DeSoto and Jackson counties.

An officer will watch the inmate through a window for the 15-minute stay and take notes.

At the same time, other inmates who lose control are being sent to empty cells that have not been painted pink. That way, researchers can compare results.

As of late last month, youths had been put in pink cells 29 times in the DeSoto facility, seven times in the Jackson County facility and eight times in the Tampa center. Results have not been analyzed.

Jackson stressed that the pink rooms are not supposed to be humiliating.

"We try to treat this not as something punitive, but "this will help you calm down,"' she said.

What if the data shows that pink cells don't work? Schembri says he'll admit it and move on.

"I ain't afraid of making mistakes," he said.

DJJ spokesman Tom Denham said that even if it doesn't work, "What's the downside here? We've lost a couple gallons of paint?"

[Last modified June 8, 2005, 01:06:11]

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