Intimate Inmates : Pregnancies at a Co-Ed Youth Facility Have Set Off Debate Over Policy and Responsibility


Their jailers forbid intimacy beyond hand-holding, but male and female prisoners of the California Youth Authority's Ventura School near Camarillo have nevertheless paired off to conceive seven children in state custody since March, 1987, records show. An eighth baby is due Nov. 23.

"I was supposed to be getting interviewed for a play," said Piper Moore, 20, four months pregnant and still a CYA prisoner. "The staff wasn't payin' attention, so we just did it. . . . What do they expect?"

The Camarillo compound, which houses virtually all of the state's incarcerated female youth offenders, is the California Youth Authority's only co-educational facility. National authorities say it also is apparently the only youth facility in the United States where prisoners regularly get pregnant.

"Every time it happens, I'm amazed," said Terry Cole, an obstetrician-gynecologist who has been making monthly visits there since 1981. "You would think that the authorities out there would have it figured out. But obviously, where there's a will, there's a way."

The facility resembles a campus, sits on a grassy plain and houses 610 male and 250 female prisoners, who sleep in separate buildings but unite for classes, counseling and some socializing under the surveillance of 450 staffers and a network of video monitors. Signs warn against physical contact, but during a recent weekday class break, scattered brief embraces went uninterrupted in the halls.

Youth Authority officials, who acknowledge that they began counting such incidents only three years ago, have recorded 27 cases of consensual participation in sex acts among prisoners since June, 1988.

Those cases include the eight on-site conceptions, officials said, as well as a pregnancy conceived in 1989 between a Camarillo State Hospital patient and a CYA prisoner who was there temporarily. Seven of the cases have been logged since January.

"Some of them are premeditated," said Piper Moore. "They want to get pregnant. They're young, and they got a lot of time, and they want to be pregnant."

Still, Dr. Hung Do, the facility's medical director for the past year, asserted that sexual activity "is not that widespread" among prisoners.

"I don't think it's an overwhelming problem, based on our population. But we have taken measures against it," said Kate Thompson, the facility's acting superintendent. She pointed to the facility's surveillance system, cited recent reductions in prisoner privileges and noted the difficulty of policing 113 acres.

The CYA's prisoners in Camarillo are guilty of offenses from nonviolent misdemeanors to murder. Though their average age is 19, more than 200 have been convicted of robbery. About 100 have been convicted of homicide. A 1987 Youth Authority survey found that by the time they were incarcerated, 18% of the CYA's female prisoners already had given birth at least once, and records show that in the past year 10 prisoners have arrived at the facility pregnant.

If an inmate age 18 or older conceives a child while incarcerated, Thompson said, the Youth Authority treats the incident as a rule infraction and recommends to the parole board that the prisoner's sentence be extended. Those extensions, Thompson said, often last six months to a year.

Piper Moore, who was near the end of a five-year sentence for kidnaping and robbery in Los Angeles when her pregnancy became known, now faces six more months in custody as punishment for her transgression. The father, she said, had moved to another institution by the time her pregnancy was discovered.

If the prisoner is under 18, Thompson said, "we refer that to law enforcement" and parents are notified. In two of the eight recent cases, Thompson said, the mothers were minors.

Usually, arrangements are made for the prisoners' families to take care of the infants, Youth Authority officials said. Others are put up for adoption. Abortions are available, officials said, but seldom chosen.

Contraceptives are not available at the facility, nor are birth control pills, except to female prisoners complaining of irregular periods and those expecting to leave within three months.

"Otherwise, it would be an act of condoning their sexual activity in the facility," Thompson said.

For critics of the Youth Authority, the pregnancies and absence of contraception raise a red flag--one that could signal an AIDS threat or a prisoner lawsuit, and one that sets the institution apart from others around the country.

"The CYA can't have it both ways. If they're going to mix boys and girls, they're going to have to provide more education, and birth control," said Ellen Barry, director of Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, a San Francisco-based legal advocacy group.

"These kids are sexually active," said Pat Marrone, who directs Allied Fellowship, an Oakland-based halfway house that takes some pregnant CYA prisoners.

"It's not only that we need to prevent them from getting pregnant. We need to prevent the spread of AIDS."

No AIDS cases have been reported among CYA prisoners in Camarillo. But critics say state officials are inviting trouble, given the facility's many prisoners with histories of substance abuse or promiscuity, or both, and the lack of condoms.

"They can't adequately supervise the kids, so not to give them birth control is such a head-in-the-sand decision," said Elizabeth Jameson, staff attorney for the Youth Law Center, a San Francisco advocacy group. Jameson added that, though she knew of no such cases so far, the pregnancies among minors could leave the state vulnerable to accusations of negligence and possible litigation by prisoners' families.

"I think I would be in favor of offering contraception to inmates," said obstetrician-gynecologist Cole, whose Ventura County private practice includes a CYA contract. "Maybe that would be encouraging someone to break the law out there, but how can you deny the reality?"

For many officials at other juvenile institutions around the country, Camarillo's reality is an unfamiliar problem.

John Zachariah, juvenile projects coordinator for the American Correctional Assn. in Maryland, called the Camarillo facility's size "a thing of the past," noting that it holds three or four times as many prisoners as many comparable institutions.

"Today you will find very few institutions with more than 200 capacity," he said. "It's better for kids and it's better for management. "

In 15 years of work at co-ed youth detention facilities, Zachariah said, he has never encountered a case of conception between prisoners behind bars. Officials at other youth offender facilities said much the same thing.

At Washington's Echo Glen Children's Center, nurse Rose Finnegan reported a population of 165 males and 30 females, with no reports of conceptions in custody.

At Idaho's Youth Services Center, senior administrative assistant Brian Chapman reported a population of 101 males and nine females, with no cases of on-site conception and no recollection of any.

In Texas, state officials run three juvenile facilities that house males and females-- Giddings State School, Brownwood State School and Corsicana State Home. They have never reported a prisoner conception and hold a combined population of 510 males and 64 females, said Youth Rights Administrator Karen Wooding.

At the Tryon Residential Center in Johnstown, N.Y., where 214 males and 73 females are housed, fed, taught and counseled largely separately, director Robert Rivenburgh reported no conception cases.

Rivenburgh also noted that while many states confine their juvenile systems to offenders no older than 18 or 21, California's system includes prisoners from ages 14 to 24--a criticism echoed by Piper Moore, sitting in a brick residence hall at the Camarillo facility.

"They shouldn't be putting people under age with adults," she said. "They should separate them. I don't know if there's enough room here, but they have been making a lot of changes lately."

The Camarillo facility was built in 1962 as the Ventura School for Girls, but transformed into a co-ed facility in 1970, when changing policies led to a decline in juvenile prisoners statewide.

"You sometimes get into things because of necessity and find they have . . . social benefits," said CYA Assistant Director Tony Cimarusti.

Other CYA officials are quick to agree, suggesting that the mixed population reduces tension, cuts down on gang confrontations and offers an atmosphere less removed from the world at large.

But Youth Authority disciplinary records--which tally "serious behavioral problems" from verbal taunts to fistfights, depending on each institution's rules--don't support that argument.

In 1989, the Camarillo facility reported 3,264 "serious behavioral problems" among its population of 860, compared to 2,679 such problems at the all-male Preston School of Industry near Sacramento (population 726), and 1,080 at the all-male Karl Holton School near Stockton (population 495).

Nevertheless, Thompson and other CYA officials vigorously defend the co-educational program, and said they have not considered ending it.

"They have to learn to deal with each other in the community," Thompson said. "I'll live with the headaches and the heat."

Thompson took over the institution in late April after the death of Superintendent Sylvester Carroway. She noted that Carroway, who arrived at Camarillo in 1987, was the first superintendent to gather figures on on-site pregnancies.

Carroway's efforts to curtail the problem, she said, included a temporary segregation of all optional co-ed programs and, six months ago, cancellation of school dances and supervised back-yard dormitory visits between males and females.

In the next few weeks, Thompson said, she and her staff will settle on a series of new measures aimed at cutting down on sexual encounters. She warned, however, that the state's tight budget limits what can be done.

Putting males and females in different classes, Thompson said, would in itself bring the Camarillo facility a financial "nightmare."

Among the most likely possibilities: sex education classes, which Thompson said haven't been offered for several years, if ever; a tighter system of passes for prisoners; separation of boys and girls in choir classes and other leisure activities; a more rigidly structured academic schedule; staff training sessions to improve security; new locks for all doors; and self-esteem counseling for female prisoners.

The self-esteem program, Thompson said, will pose the question, "Do you really want to conceive in an institution? It's a matter of looking at their self-esteem versus their sexual promiscuity."

Last Thursday and Friday, the state Commission of Juvenile Justice, Crime and Delinquency made its annual inspection of the Ventura School. The group's findings aren't expected to be released for at least several weeks, but Commissioner Donna Clontz, who is also executive director of the Ventura County Deputy Sheriffs Assn., said she didn't expect reports of on-site pregnancies to surprise commissioners.

Given the facility's population, she suggested, a record of just eight pregnancies in three years among 250 females may be "a good sign that everybody's doing what they're supposed to be doing."

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