Boys Totem Town to close, many details yet to be worked out

Boys Totem Town, the juvenile detention facility in the Highwood Hills neighborhood of St. Paul, will close Aug. 1, as announced in late May by Ramsey County officials. The 36-bed facility currently has five residents, the last of which is set to finish his programming July 27. (file graphic)

Boys Totem Town will be closing Aug. 1, as announced by Ramsey County Director of Community Corrections John Klavins last month.

During a May 28 county board workshop, county staffers discussed what led to the decision to close the facility, citing a near 60% drop in residents at the facility over the past five years, as well as changes in the county’s corrections department.

“It can be hard for staff and the community, but it can be a good thing, too,” County Manager Ryan O’Connor said of the changes, arguing they show the county’s corrections reforms are working.

The decision was based on the projected and current population at the all-male juvenile detention center. As of June 1, the 36-bed center had five residents, having received its last new resident on Jan. 28. The facility stopped accepting residents May 1, and the last resident will finish the program on July 27.

Serving boys ages 14 through 18, Boys Totem Town is a court-ordered residential program with both day and overnight programs. It does not house boys who’ve committed violent crimes. 

It’s located east of Highway 61, just south of Lower Afton Road in the Highwood Hills neighborhood of St. Paul.


Years of discussions

In the preceding years the county had considered building a shared detention facility with Hennepin County. 

However, the community spoke out against the idea, instead suggesting that Ramsey County reevaluate how it works with kids in the corrections system. O’Connor said that national data supported reforming juvenile justice, showing that community-based programs, which help kids stay in or near their homes, reduced rates of recidivism.

Following the community’s direction of focusing more on youth and less on facilities, the county refocused its reform work, finding more community-based and culturally-specific programs for young people in the corrections system, while looking at its corrections systems through a racial equity lens, O’Connor said.

Since 2015, the county has partnered with a number of community organizations, including Talitha Cumi, a program for young women, to reduce high-risk behaviors like gang involvement, violent acts, teen pregnancy and poor academic performance. 

It’s also partnered with Circle of Peace, a facilitated conversation group. Other Ramsey County departments also take part in juvenile programming, like gardening and landscaping projects administered by Parks and Recreation. 


A century-old 


For Highwood Hills residents who live near the 72-acre facility, one of the biggest concerns is what will happen to the land once it closes its doors.

Boys Totem Town has been around since 1913 and has had a positive relationship with the neighborhood, due to the large green space if offers to neighbors and wildlife. 

Since 2014, when the county began considering what to do with the ageing facility, the community has been having discussions about what kind of resources are missing in the area and how the space could potentially fulfil those needs.

“We’re not in a rush with the property, we are in a rush in terms of doing better by our youth,” O’Connor said, adding that the county is committed to working with the city, the District 1 Community Council and neighbors to build on the community work that has already happened over the past few years. 

Ramsey County Board of Commissioners Chair Jim McDonough, who represents a majority of the East Side, said one thing to keep in mind as the county moves forward is patience. 

“Patience is the word here, with staff and the community,” McDonough said during workshop.

O’Connor said that in the short term, up to the next 18 months, the county will focus on finding new positions for the 42 staffers currently employed at Totem Town, while decommissioning the facility and having some sort of closing commemoration.

Boys Totem Town costs about $5.6 million a year to operate, due to fixed facility and maintenance costs, cash that county officials said will be reallocated to other juvenile justice programs that focus on keeping kids in the community. Details on exactly how that funding will be used in the future will be fleshed out this summer as the county puts together its 2020 budget.

Longer term work includes continuing to reform the county’s adult and juvenile justice systems, particularly in providing more programming for young men between the ages of 18 to 25, and for young women. 


–Marjorie Otto can be reached at 651-748-7816 or at

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