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Locked up at Thanksgiving: Definitely not a holiday


Now that the holidays are upon us, efforts are in full swing to address the commercial aspect that is an intractable part of the season, underlining the hope that it may add ballast for the depressed economy that has become a staple over the past few years.

For some two million Americans the recession is not an issue, since they are behind bars. The financial burden and attendant stress it brings upon the rest of us is not a concern of the inmate who is guaranteed room and board (albeit not of the four star variety), yet incarceration brings with it a unique stress all its own, especially for impressionable youth.

In order to fully understand the dynamics of juvenile justice, it might be helpful to look at the concept of diminished culpability which leads to another concept that, like most legal terms has Latin roots, parens patriae. Briefly, this gives a governing entity (for the purposes of this article, the state of California, or either the county or city of Los Angeles) the right to intervene on the behalf of a child (and, in some cases adults), when their parent or legal guardian proves to be inadequate in the responsibilities of caregiving, typically through abuse or neglect.

For probationary minors, the reasoning goes that improper supervision encourages wayward youth to violate society’s norms, or to be blunt, break the law.

To address this problem, two primary institutions are in place, the Los Angeles County Probation Department and the CDJJ or California Division of Juvenile Justice (formerly the California Youth Authority, or CYA).

On its website, the probation department boasts that it is the largest such department in the world with more than a century of corrective assistance to the county. Within its jurisdictional oversight are some 4,000 minors age 18 and under, within the three juvenile halls of its Detention Services Bureau, or its camps system under Residential Treatment Services.

As this article went to press, the department had begun a hiring spree (see OurWeekly, Oct. 6, 2010) as part of a larger effort to repair its beleaguered image following misappropriation of funding and federal criticism of juvenile supervision. About five years ago, the United States Department of Justice followed up on its negative assessment of the probation department by beginning close supervision of the quality of custody given to the wards in confinement. Specific attention is given to issues like the staff to inmate ratio, and availability of psychiatric assistance to youngsters in need.

First Person Remembrances
The cadre overseeing our youthful offenders are a hodge-podge of college educated civil servants with diverse backgrounds in chemistry, political science, and economics and other such subjects. Given our proximity to the entertainment industry, more than a few are also actors and musicians.

After earning a film degree from a prestigious local university, “Dave” found no prospective openings in Hollywood and gravitated to corrections as a way of paying off the tens of thousands of dollars in debt he incurred in the pursuit of his education. After his probationary period in the “halls”, the former all California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) tight end’s physique and skill at crowd control earned him a spot in a “Special Handling Unit” or “Shoe,” where he shepherds an assortment of rapists, murderers, and miscreants who’ve had discipline problems in other units.

The juvenile system may be seen as a wheel with spokes meeting in the middle where the “hall” acts as a “hub.” Newly arrested minors are inducted into the system at the hall while they await adjudication, or trial before a judge (each hall has an adjacent court house next to it). Once sentenced, they may be “farmed out” to various camps, private placements licensed to care for wards of the court, or for serious offenders, the CDJJ. Minors may be returned to the halls for additional court dates, transition to hospitals for medical treatment, and so forth. The fact that the halls serve as a “gateway” for the system contributes to the anxiety of youths new to the system, and is an explanation for the halls being more violent than the camps, according to Bandele, a current probation officer (P.O.) who, like Dave wishes to remain anonymous.

Dave is one of a pair of counselors working a two-sided unit, each containing a hallway with 16 cells and a day room. Theoretically, each child should have a room, but overcrowding means there’s always an overflow of youths sleeping on mattresses in each dayroom. The units are buttressed against a glass enclosed control room manned by a senior detention officer who supervises each wing and provides counselor assistance in an emergency. Depending on their availability, other staff may be brought in for coverage.

Dave’s experiences of past holidays are overshadowed by the depression of kids newly locked up, and staff agitated by being away from their families. This combustive mixture means that an inordinate number of “restraints” where staff members have a greater potential to physically manhandle minors. Often these incidents are started by wards angry at their confinement, who then direct their rage at peer or staff.This observation has been witnessed by several line staff at central juvenile hall and is often covered in probation training sessions on how to not escalate situations.

Correctional facility transitions may be said to mirror changes in society, according to Bandele. His pseudonym stems from his youthful flirtation with Black Nationalism, but he drifted into law enforcement motivated by the simple need for steady employment. Among the work assignments he’s engaged in during the course of his career was an extended stretch in one of the 20-odd camps scattered throughout the nether regions of the county, including one of the six that make up Lancaster’s Camp Challenger. By the time adolescent offenders reached the camps and Bandele, they are veterans of the system, in that they’d been arrested and adjudicated several times, have a working knowledge of the courts, and worked up acquaintances with several of the staff members, and were less violent.

This meant that they were used to the short comings of their parents as well, and so regarded holiday incarceration as part of the regiment of the ‘gangsta’ lifestyle, according to an article in the 1993 Justice Quarterly.

Bandele’s camp and its inhabitants were considered among the best behaved within the department, since it was an ‘open’ camp, meaning that no walls or physical barriers were in place to keep the residents in (it should be noted that most camps are in the wilderness, and most law breakers are from the inner city, which in itself is a deterrent to escape). Therefore no kid under his watch received psychoactive drug treatment, had a history of suicide ideation, or exceptional assaultive behavior.

Once inside the camp, Bandele decided, perhaps as a by product of the idealism of his formative years, that he might as well try to make a positive investment in the kids. Staff members of this disposition would occasionally go out of their way and plan extracurricular activities for their charges, according to D.L. Atkins.

Juvenile Gulag
Unlike Bandele and Dave, “E.J.’s” career goal was to become a peace officer, and towards that end he pursued a degree in criminal justice. Once that was completed, his vocation took him through the ranks of the probation department, then on to the Youth Authority and the confines of Whittier’s legendary Fred C. Nelles Youth Correctional Facility (shuttered for the last six years). Like Bandele, he told Our Weekly not to use his name, because while he no longer works in corrections, he still has pending legal matters to be resolved with his former employer.

The CYA traces its lineage (under various names) to pre-Civil War days, and its recent history also features some well documented scandals (California Youth Authority rife with problems, May 23, 2004, Leonard Edwards). The environment at CYA, or as it is now known, CDJJ, is by all accounts more intense. Wards who fail to conform in the county probation system are sent to CDJJ at the state level under the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, and range from 13 to 25 (12 years olds need the governor’s approval). Towards the end of the 20th Century, it was generally accepted that placement here was the equivalent of being “written off” by society.

Violence is a staple of life at CDJJ. Widely regarded as a ‘gladiator school,’ or ‘feeder system’ for the state’s multi-billion dollar prison apparatus, it has garnered more than its share of media notoriety through recurrent reports of systemic violence among inmates, staff initiated beatings, and allegations that more than 90 percent of those incarcerated at the CDJJ eventually found their way into the ‘Big House’ of the 30-odd facilities that comprise the state penal system.

Eventually, all this criticism came to a head, and a major restructuring was put into motion (and is still currently in place). Along with these steps towards reform, the agency was renamed the California Division of Juvenile Justice, possibly an attempt at “rebranding,” similar to the change of South Central Los Angeles to South Los Angeles in the desire escape the negative connotations associated with the old name.

Rick Fuentes a staff with CDJJ believes that with all the restructuring the agency under went one should be mindful that annual reunions and rituals with family members can be difficult or impossible during institutional confinement, and this break in tradition can exacerbate the traumatic experience of incarceration. More over, the very nature of imprisonment carries with it the burden of excess time for introspection, reflection, remorse, and solitary thoughts about the loss of independence. A worst-case scenario may be that a holiday might be a reminder of what the individual has lost, and few if any resources, may be available in an overcrowded, institutionalized setting for the special needs of a depressed child.

Unresolved emotional conflict
CDJJ houses a wide cross section of offenders from petty criminals to felons, while the population of the Youth Authority is arguably all hardcore, and saturated with felonious practitioners of sex offenses, murder and mayhem, and other capitol crimes.

E.J. came into CDJJ with a gung-ho mentality shaped by a six-week course at the police academy that buttressed his experiences working in Juvenile Hall. He was not alone, since most of the younger “youth counselors” had the mind set that they were street cops charged with administering justice to the bad guys. He did, after a time notice that female and older male staff had a more therapeutic outlook towards these wards of the state. These younger employees however, welcomed the emergence of any crisis situation as an opportunity to physically contain these youth, and vied for the chance to be selected for the “Goon Squad” (officially known as the Tactical, or Tact Team) designated to put down riots and insurrections.

This special unit had ample chances to ply its trade, since unrest was a common occurrence, instigated by friction, alternately gang or racial in origin.

Although the wards within the walls of Fred C. Nellis were considered hardened criminals, occasionally a chink in their armor would manifest itself, such as when a parent would renege on an assurance of a visitation, then past resentment of unfulfilled promises and a childhood filled with lies would surface, resulting in a shift of behavior such as back talk or opposition to staff, and picking fights with peers. Attempts at “restructuring” the minor could include verbal counseling, removal from the main population, then after all that failed, further isolation and close observation by staff in a “lock down unit.” Extreme hard cases labeled “Program Failures,” would be placed in single cells shrouded with wire mesh to prevent them from pummeling the guards with their own feces. A major issue when working with incarcerated youth is juveniles history, a young juvenile’s history will not be as documented in his files as opposed to a veteran in the system,who may make the best of depressing conditions.

Some of the more mature ‘Original Gangstas,’ or ‘Veteranos’ take confinement in stride, hooking up with their home boys to form a sort of ‘pot-luck in the poky,’ where in one ward’s family might provide a ham, another inmate’s family would bring a turkey, while other visiting family members would present various desserts. This food would undergo extensive inspection before being allowed into the facility. Pot luck family night was a clear example that even a jail has its own hierarchy, and the number of visitors, mail received, and money in the prisoner’s canteen fund were considered status symbols.

The problems witnessed in the California detention system echo or foreshadow a growing national problem regarding rehabilitation or warehousing youthful offenders. This along with the mushrooming American penal system overall are the subject of increased criticism in the court of world opinion.

Earlier in this article, we mentioned the correctional system is currently under increased scrutiny by federal and other jurisdictions. A few months ago, the collective system from the state on down received $44 million, along with the mandate that only those individuals who pose “…an eminent threat to society,” should be confined. This is partially the end result of officials within the state and county clamoring that they have no more room in their facilities. Thusly, those engaged in nonviolent activity such as breaking and entering, drug possession, gambling, prostitution, and so on, will be arrested, placed on probation, and required to check in with a probation officer or other custodial figure.

These changes will be implemented because of monetary concerns as opposed to humanitarian precepts. Camp Challenger spends $50,000 yearly for the 600 youths housed there. CYA / CDJJ annual expenses for confinement are an estimated $200,000 per ward. The population in this state corrections system has dropped from a peak of 10,000 plus in 1996, to under 1,500 presently.

The fear of lawsuits stemming from physical injuries has weaned the Probation Department away from the brutal restrains that were a hallmark of an earlier era, and encouraged the adoption of the use of pepper spray, a tool that can still be abused, albeit without long term bodily damages. Downsizing in the form of lower incarcerations and restructuring are likely to due to the increased intervention of the Department of Justice and other federal agencies, and more changes are a certainty within the next few years. OurWeekly readers are encouraged to access the report “A New Era In California Juvenile Justice”:at the Berkeley Center for Criminal Justice website (

Thanksgiving Day behind bars

Thanksgiving is just another day, when you are an incarcerated youth, according to Los Angeles Detention Service Officer J.H., as he wants to be referred.

Juveniles are given the traditional turkey and dressing, according to J.H. and that’s the extent of it. A clergy member may stop by to visit a unit but that is not guaranteed.

A staff member at Sylmar Juvenile Hall who has worked at every juvenile hall in L.A. County says that the most important issue to watch for are fights due to holiday confinement and suicide attempts. Juveniles are often placed on 15-minute room checks or transferred to a hospital for observation, if suicidal signs are observed such as giving away personal items.

J.H. believes the probation department is proactive in regard to monitoring its wards as opposed to the California Department of Juvenile Justice (CDJJ), which he feels is reactive (allowing a incident to happen and then reacting).

He says this is well-known in the industry and is over looked because of the power of the California Correctional Peace Officers Association. A (CDJJ) representative at the Southern Youth Correctional Reception Center and Clinic in Norwalk California was contacted, and said due to the high security risk of the youth they house, the only information he was allowed to make public was that the facility will serve a traditional Thanksgiving meal.

Mark Benton is currently a probation officer for Orange County, he refuses to comment on the Thanksgiving activities at Orange County Probation Department. However he was open to discussing his former job at Optimist Boy’s Home and Ranch (OBH), a privately owned treatment facility located in Highland Park.

OBH is usually a probation department’s last attempt to restructure a youth’s behavior, according to Benton. The residential facility has two treatment programs, an ambulatory offering known as Transitional Treatment Plan (TTP). This program allows juveniles to remain in their homes and attend an on campus school and undergo therapeutic treatment plans during normal school hours, this article will not focus on TTP. A more intense residential treatment plan requires juveniles to live on campus for usually 8 months to a year, and if behavior is satisfactory then they receive weekend home passes. While at OBH the juvenile remains a ward of the probation department, and if the ward is not successful in completing the court ordered program, they are returned to the confines of juvenile hall or mandated to the California Department of Juvenile Justice.

During the holiday season (Christmas and Thanksgiving) the administration staffs at OBH are very aggressive in furloughing the majority of its juvenile’s home. The population usually goes from 100 male minors to just 20 during this time, and according to Mark, that is when you observe a juveniles holiday coping skills. His most memorable Thanksgiving was when
an African American juvenile known for his combative and disruptive behavior approached Mark, who was serving as the duty officer that day and stated “Mr. Benton we are not going to fight today; today we are all family.” The juvenile was holding back tears as he made his statement, unable to contain his sadness at being at a facility while the majority of the kids are at home enjoying their family. He remembers kids eating large amounts of food and, some boasting that this is what they are going to do today. Mark believes actions and statements like this enables the juvenile to mask their feelings by having an agenda that day, showing that he is still in control.

As in any correctional facility or ancillary correctional facility, there always exists a pecking order as well as a social structure consisting of hardened gang members (shot callers) and kids considered to be on the bottom of social acceptability (usually Department of Protective Child Services wards) who have not embraced the gangsta lifestyle, but are there due to a unstable home. During the holiday season Mark states these behaviors disappear and kids that are considered shot callers in the dorms socialize with the kids that are there as a result of their family structure or have suffered abuse. It’s sad, but the abused kids find comfort in finally being accepted by the hardened kids. He thinks this may allow the less aggressive kids to forget about being away from home that day and being a part of the in crowd or gangsta crew.

Being stuck at OBH during the holiday season also places a kid in the spotlight as having nowhere to go in reference to a home and exposes an issue a minor may have wanted to keep secret from his peers. Institutionalized minors are aware of situations that prevent a home furlough during the holiday season such as incarcerated parents, homelessness or parental drug addiction. During arguments or fights, an exposed dysfunctional home issue can be used as verbal ammunition. Kids that are loners that day and remain in their rooms are red-flagged as a possible suicide risk and are checked on every 15 minutes through out the day.

Mark remembers the kitchen staff attempting to erase the images of an institution that day by pushing all the dinner tables together that have been decorated with table cloths and center pieces of scented candles and pine cones. The food is placed on the arranged tables as if a large family is about to feast complete with turkey and dressing, and that day as far back as he can remember a staff member always publicly blesses the food. As Mark completes this interview he too is fighting back tears.