Youth offenders sue state over tough lockup

A look inside California's tightest juvenile facility – Mace, metal cages, and all

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

. – The "classrooms" are made up of metal cages about the size of phone booths. Each student sits at a desk inside a pen, peering through mesh and passing assignments through a slot. School lasts just one hour a day.

While this may not be a typical high-school setting, neither are these your typical diploma-seekers. These cramped units provide what passes for schooling for the most violent residents in California's youth corrections system.

To the staff, the closed cages are a revolutionary way to open minds – the only way to do so without someone getting punched or stabbed. But to offenders like David Owens, a 21-year-old decorated with gang tattoos, the cages represent overly oppressive conditions for young people who are still navigating their way into adulthood.

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Mr. Owens and 10 other so-called wards in California's juvenile corrections system have filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of all wards at the California Youth Authority, alleging inhumane conditions at this and other facilities.

The charges, ranging from poor educational opportunities to use of unnecessary force by staff, revive age-old questions of punishment versus rehabilitation – questions carrying special significance when they involve youths.

If successful, the legal action could force significant changes in the nation's largest juvenile corrections system – a system that was once considered a national leader but is now, by most accounts, deeply troubled.

"There are all these serious problems, and nothing is being done about them," said Donald Specter, director of the Prison Law Office, the nonprofit firm that filed the suit. "I believe that by winning a lawsuit, we can get a court to order the state to fix the problems."

The lawsuit focuses on day-to-day operations at institutions like Chaderjian Youth Correctional Facility, located on the rural outskirts of Stockton. Some plaintiffs allege excessive use of force. One says he was sprayed twice with Mace and pushed to the ground by staff following a scuffle with another youth. The plaintiffs also claim they were forced to take psychotropic medication, denied proper medical care, and faced violence by other wards.

The classroom cages at "Chad" are also cited in the suit as an example of inhumane conditions. But at "Chad," where gang conflict is the No. 1 problem, the staff says cages make classes work by separating violent and vulnerable youths from each other.

"These are the gang leaders and very assaultive wards that refuse to stop their behavior," said Jack Karver, program administrator at Chaderjian. "They started in an open dorm and graduated to this institution."

Indeed, Chad, which holds youths between the ages of 18 and 25 who committed their crimes while juveniles, fills a high-security niche in California's juvenile-justice system. At this facility, wards who fight are sent to a lockup unit for two to three months at a time, where they attend school in cages and stay in their cells 19 to 23 hours a day.

On a recent afternoon, an agitated but well-spoken Owens meets a reporter in a small office. Sitting with shackles on his legs and hands, he tells his side of the story. He claims to have left gang activity behind, and says he is now in the lockup unit for fighting in self-defense. He complains that he is denied access to educational programs while in the secure housing unit. He is required to get his high-school diploma before he can be paroled, but says that won't happen with the course limitations he faces in lockup. "I should be afforded the opportunity to get that diploma," he says.

'Last-resort' facilities

The California Youth Authority houses more than 7,500 youths in 11 institutions spread throughout the state. It is considered the "last resort" of several punishment options available to judges in California's juvenile courts. Those institutionalized are often repeat or serious offenders who are hard to deal with at the county level.

The Chaderjian facility, which holds 680 youths, offers a window into a system that critics say does too little to steer troubled youths toward a crime-free life.

The institution resembles an adult prison, with wards assigned to individual cells in 50-person units. The two-story units encompass a cavernous common area where wards play cards and socialize during their free time. A correctional officer in a second-level command center can see the cell doors and the activities below at all times. Chaos seems to reign in lockup, and the arrival of visitors only increases the disorder.

"Don't believe a thing they tell you," residents say – "they" being administrators. Staff must protect themselves daily against feces and urine that wards fling through the thin cell-door slots. Each correctional counselor wears a belt with two types of Mace, handcuffs, and a personal alarm. They also wear stab-proof vests.

Correctional counselor Tracy Rivera's duties include escorting youths to their activities, reviewing case files and talking to those in lockup so they don't become too isolated or depressed.

"It looks more intimidating than it is," said Ms. Rivera, who says she was once was pulled through the tray slot by a ward as she tried to handcuff him.

Noah Hogan, a 21-year-old who has been with the Youth Authority since 1997 for assault with a deadly weapon, leans on his cell door to report what life in lockup is like: "I feel like I'm not respected at all," he shouts through the thick steel. "I'm treated like an animal."

Other Youth Authority facilities look more like traditional reform schools, with large dormitories housing anywhere from 40 to 80 youths. Systemwide, officials figure that 3 out of 4 wards are affiliated with gangs, with many joining after they enter the system. By comparison, perhaps one-third of those in California's regular prisons are in gangs.

Many gangs, limited money

Youth Authority officials say the gang problem is a central reason for the use of cages and handcuffs in the lockup unit. No effort is made to separate members of different gangs from each other – something that is done in California's prison system.

Critics say this sets the system up to fail, since wards will inevitably fight, but Youth Authority Director Jerry Harper defends his department's policy. "One philosophy is to segregate," he says. "But does that make a person ready to go back out on the streets to deal with blacks and Hispanics and Asians."

A second major factor behind the conditions here, experts say, is money. The state spends $48,000 per year on each ward. Some juvenile-corrections experts contend that smaller facilities, with fewer than 100 youths, are much more effective at rehabilitation. But such facilities, now in place in states such as Missouri and Massachusetts, often cost twice as much, they say.

Short of an infusion of new money, some observers see other steps that could make the system more successful. Eleanor Moses, a supervising parole agent in the Youth Authority's Oakland office, says the biggest need is for supervisors to be more innovative, coupled with better supervision once youths are paroled.

She says she expects the lawsuit and similar outside scrutiny to lead to reforms. But it could take years for the lawsuit, filed in January, to settle or go to trial.

"We've made a lot of progress," Director Harper affirms. "But this is something that's going to take some time."

To Owens, change can't come too soon. "I don't want money," he says. "I just want the administration to be held accountable."

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