FEW Californians, including those with children currently incarcerated in the state juvenile-penal system - the California Youth Authority (CYA) - seem to understand what is happening behind the walls of these institutions. CYA staffers say most people assume that whatever happens to California's troubled youth is beneficial for the youths and for their eventual return to society. A look inside the CYA dispels that assumption.The CYA houses its juvenile wards in prison-like facilities. To maintain their social rank, wards routinely assault their peers. They punch, kick, hit, and even stab one another, often preying in packs upon younger and smaller children. CYA wards also suffer sexual abuse, by their peers and sometimes by CYA staff. The institutions which confine these youthful offenders remind them constantly of their "criminality." They are surrounded by razor wire, tall fences, and spotlighted guard towers. Their adult guardians dress paramilitary-style, wearing military fatigues, heavy black boots, and puncture-proof vests. They carry Mace and club-like steel flashlights. Wards living in these conditions choose one of two paths. Those who yield to the oppression are generally paroled within two to three years and return to the streets. Others "act out" against the system, as CYA officials say. When wards act out - by fighting, destroying property, assaulting a guard - they are detained for up to three months in a solitary-confinement cell. Solitary cells are made of concrete and steel and measure approximately 6 feet wide by 9 feet long by 16 feet high. There is a steel sink, steel toilet, steel bunk, and a steel door. At the lower portion of the door is a steel flap, through which meals are served twice a day. A camera in a corner of the high ceiling monitors every movement for 23 hours each day. During the 24th hour, the ward leaves the cell to exercise and shower. Because of the cold temperatures inside the cells, CYA guards refer to ti me in solitary as "keeping them on ice." Solitary confinement may temporarily solve a problem, but in the long run, the effects on punished wards can be devastating. They endure months of sensory deprivation and are then released, allegedly cured. Unfortunately, the punished wards tend to be even more psychopathic and hateful than before. Most act out again, and are then "graduated" to the CYA's highest-level facility - the Preston School for Boys in Ione - or are transferred directly to a state prison. In private, CYA staff admit that the CYA is not helping California's juvenile delinquents. Programs designed to educate and "normalize" the CYA's 8,150 jailed youths have a success rate of less than 50 percent, they say. "Batting .500 in baseball is one thing," says one staffer at the CYA's Fred C. Nelles School in Whittier, "batting .500 with someone's life is another." But the public shows little interest in the CYA. ve practically begged people to come here and see their tax dollars at work," says an administrator the Nelles School. "Very few do." CYA wards say any rehabilitation results from individual desire and initiative and not from the costly programs offered for their use. "Any kind of help I got here, I did on my own," says one Preston ward. "Not too many of these guys are going to make it out of here." With an annual budget of $342 million, the CYA is not tending adequately to its wards' immediate problems: dysfunctional families; drug and alcohol abuse; mental, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse. Add the abuses suffered during incarceration, and wards are almost guaranteed to be even more unprepared for life outside the penal system. Residents of other states must understand that the same abuses and bureaucratic ineptitude have been occurring for years in their own juvenile-penal institutions. I have received letters from incarcerated children in 13 states, each offering vivid accounts of abuse. In every state, to help solve these continuing problems, parents, community members, religious leaders, and state and local legislators need to become involved in the lives of incarcerated youth. They should support three primary reforms needed in all systems, including the CYA: an end to solitary confinement and dormitory living, which promote peer-on-peer abuse; the construction of single, private rooms where a child can be alone and recover from the stress inherent to any institution; and the employment of qualified, caring professionals to oversee children during their incarceration. These reforms will be expensive. But they are necessary if these children are ever to become productive members of society. The time has come to become more responsible for the increasing delinquency of our youth.