On Their Own
Fernando woke up happy, ready to work.
He would be going home soon. With good behavior, the Oxnard gang member had whittled nearly a month off his 120-day sentence at the boot camp.
Today, the sun filtered through the oaks and cottonwoods as the boys from the camp cleared a mudslide off a road by the Santa Ynez River.
Water gurgled over the road and the crew took a break, joking around about their bad luck with the law.
Jess, a 17-year-old recovering heroin addict, and Fernando laughed about a guy they had met in Juvenile Hall.
“You know that guy, he was at the Hall, his two brothers were at County, and he had his dad in prison all at the same time,” Jess said.
“Now that’s jacked up,” said Fernando, who at 16, with four stints behind bars, was in a position to know.
Then Jess offered his own hard-luck story:
“I was out for only a month before I got busted.”
Fernando topped him: “I was only out 20 days.”
“They told me next time I’m going to County,” Jess said.
“There’s not going to be a next time,” Fernando said firmly. “I’m not going back.”
“That’s what you said last time.”
“No, last time I said I’d stay sober. But I’m not going back. This time I got a plan.”
Nearly finished with their 120-day sentences at the Tri-County Boot Camp, the boys were all making plans.
Opened in October, the program was meant to give nonviolent teenage criminals a chance to turn their lives around.
And some youths seemed as if they might do just that.
Still, no one expected the camp to be a fix-all.
Study after study has shown that boot camps are no more successful at stopping teenagers from returning to lives of crime than are other institutions.
And the point where the system typically breaks down is the transition from the highly structured environment of boot camp to the chaos of the streets.
After all, the camp gives the boys few choices about what to do with their time.
They work all morning clearing mudslides or brush in the national forest and spend each afternoon in school doing catch-up work in basic English and math. In between, they eat, exercise, perform military drills and take three-minute bathroom breaks.
Gangs and drugs are forbidden, television and talking strictly limited.
“What will happen when they go right back to the same homes and the same communities where they got into this trouble?” asked Carol Hurtt, a former division chief for the Colston Youth Center and the Juvenile Restitution Program in Ventura.
Taking a cue from the most successful boot camps, the organizers of the tri-county camp developed a lengthy after-care program for the boys returning to Ventura, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties.
After they leave the camp, the boys visit with probation officers once or twice a week for six to nine months, she said. The probation officers conduct random drug tests, help the boys find jobs and make sure they go to school.
But the boys know that on the streets they’ll have the same temptations as before. They’ll be running into the same friends. They’ll be wrestling with the same demons.
Jess, who had been strung out on heroin since he was 15, wondered if he could stay clean.
The Santa Paula youth couldn’t even do 10 push-ups when he first arrived at the camp. Now he could easily knock out 50 at a time. And he was studying, too, reading books for the first time in a long time. But old habits die hard.
“I always do good when I’m locked up,” he said. “I did good when I was in Colston, but it’s different when I’m out. . . . Hopefully I won’t go back to my old ways. But I know this stuff is out there, and I’m afraid I’ll use again.”
An Opportunity to Get Things Right
Jaime didn’t have any doubt.
The 17-year Santa Paula youth knew he would make it. After 16 arrests, he couldn’t afford to go back to the gangs and petty crimes of his past.
Everything happens for a reason, he figured.
And the reason he got caught carrying a gun, the reason he got sent to this camp was so he could get his life back on track.
He hated it there, but God--or whatever--had placed it in his path. While he was there, he studied with a priest so he could take his first Communion.
He started to live the Christian tenets he was studying.
When a new camper arrived who didn’t speak English well, Jaime took him under his wing.
The kid had been getting into trouble for disobeying orders or making mistakes--mostly because he didn’t understand what the detention officers were telling him. Jaime rushed in to help: First translating orders into Spanish under his breath and, at one point, stopping the boy from lashing out and hitting a detention officer.
Finally, Jaime talked to a camp supervisor about the problem.
Jaime was angry, but instead of fighting about it, he wrote a class paper criticizing the camp for allowing this to happen.
“It wasn’t right. He didn’t do anything wrong, but he was punished just because he couldn’t speak English. Somebody should have known that before they sent him here,” Jaime said.
The camp had definitely changed his life.
An Ending and a Beginning
Seventeen isn’t too old to change, he thought. Jaime knew--especially after the pain his arrests had caused his grandmother--that this was his chance. His time in the camp was a kick in the pants, pushing him to go back to school and get a job.
That was his plan, at least.
It was Fernando’s last meal at boot camp.
The smell of pizza wafted through the cafeteria.
The boys in their brown uniforms were quiet, sitting in chairs with their backs straight, their hands flat on the tables next to their dinner trays. The aromas teased their stomachs. After a morning of hard work and the usual calisthenics, they were all hungry.
Someone rang a bell.
One of the boys sprang up, ramrod-straight. In a deep voice, he shouted, “Dear Lord, thank you for this food.”
“Amen!” everybody shouted in response.
They began to shovel the food into their mouths. Although this was a special day, no talking was permitted.
Fernando sat with his young brother and his mother.
It had all gone by in a blur.
When he had started, three months earlier, Fernando didn’t like the camp. For a long time he had to suppress his urge to punch out detention officers who would get in his face.
But something, something almost spiritual, had happened to him here.
It was on his birthday. He and the others were taken on a hike to a place called Red Rock, a high, lonely outcropping in the chaparral. For the first time, nature smacked him in the face and left him a little dazed.
“There were these low clouds and the rocks and trees,” he said dreamily. “Just the light and the color and everything--it was just beautiful.”
Other things changed for him, too.
It had been a couple of years since he’d set foot in a classroom, but now he wanted to go back to school. And he wanted to get a job and rejoin his family.
“I’ve always liked the water,” he said. “I’m a good swimmer and I think I’d like to go to college and study marine biology or something.”
On graduation day, he listened to the speeches from camp supervisor Alan Bolender and other staff members. He got a certificate showing he had done almost 500 hours of work in the Los Padres National Forest. Then he and the others were dismissed. He went to the barracks and put on his baggy street clothes.
For him, it was over--and it was just beginning as well.
Probation officer Mario Marquez, who shuttled between Ventura to the camp each week to check the boys’ progress, knew it would be tough for Fernando and others in the shapeless and frightening land the boys inside call “the outs.”
“I’m optimistic, but you never know,” he said. “I know that at the camp they’ve learned discipline and self-respect, but it’s hard to unlearn what they picked up on the streets.”
Seduced by the Old Ways
Going home. It’s what they all had been thinking about, wondering how they would do on the outside.
Fernando had his plan.
The first thing he wanted to do was fix up his room. But when he got home, he found his mom had rented it out, and he had to share space with his little brother.
For weeks, Fernando kept up his regular visits with his probation officer. He attended a special school next to the Oxnard Police Department until he could enroll in a regular high school. He also looked for a job.
“It’s a lot harder than I thought it would be,” he said one day. “There’s a lot of temptations, you know. People want to give you things. There’s a lot of drugs. And there’s a lot more time to kill. Basically, I don’t have someone telling me what to do all the time. . . . It’s not going to be easy.”
It was as if Fernando were talking to the guys back at the camp, warning them about what would come when they got out.
Jess knew what to expect.
Two weeks after Fernando left, it was his turn to leave.
Jess had arrived at the boot camp about 14 days after his Oxnard friend and was leaving right on schedule. Like Fernando, Jess had knocked a month off his sentence with good behavior.
Now he was thinking about what came next. He already knew about the temptations that Fernando was discovering. Jess worried about whether he would be strong enough to resist his taste for heroin.
But in the camp, he had grown strong and healthy. Jess had done well in school for the first time in his life and felt he finally was on a good-luck streak. Jess hoped his luck wouldn’t run out.
With a new fuzzy mustache and strong shoulders, he left the camp with his father at his side. Jess planned to spend a few weeks with his old man, and he and his dad took a bus to Fresno.
But after two weeks without contacting his probation officer, Chris Jiron, a warrant was taken out for Jess’ arrest.
Jess’ disabled father had no phone, so perhaps he couldn’t keep in touch, Jiron thought. Or maybe he had just disappeared.
“I haven’t heard from him, so I really have no choice,” he said.
Then Jiron got a call from Jess’ aunt. Her nephew was returning to Santa Paula and would finally meet with Jiron.
“I’m going to take that at face value,” Jiron said, adding that one of the first things he would do when Jess returned would be to test him for drugs.
“If I find traces of opiates in his system, there’ll be problems for him,” he said.
Fernando was in worse trouble.
Oxnard police arrested him one Saturday night for drinking and hanging out with his old gang friends, a violation of his probation terms.
He slept off his drinking binge, but on Sunday ran away from home. No one saw him for more than a week, and then he was picked up on a curfew violation in Camarillo. His probation officer said he would go back to court for those probation violations, and could end up spending a few more days at Juvenile Hall.
Signs of Success in Relative Terms
While Jess and Fernando were struggling on the streets, R.E. was languishing in the camp.
The 17-year-old Ventura boy--with a long record for stealing cars, carrying guns and fighting cops--had started as a model camper, only to sour on the program after he learned that his asthma would keep him out of the Marines.
Arguments with staff members and a shoving match with another camper cost him any chance of early release. And now, because of the extra hours he had piled up, he couldn’t graduate from the program and receive a certificate for his work in the national forest. Without it, getting a job on the outside would be harder.
He could leave, but he couldn’t finish.
His mother was devastated.
After all, R.E. had quit junior high, he had quit high school. She didn’t want to see him quit again, after he had put in so much hard work. She wanted him to finish something.
So R.E. stood before Juvenile Court Judge Charles R. McGrath and asked for something that would have been unthinkable just a few weeks earlier:
He wanted to extend his stay at the camp. He wanted to finish it. Convinced that R.E. was sincere, Judge McGrath let R.E. stay.
Nineteen days later, he got his chance to graduate, standing in front of his fellow campers. With him was Jaime, who had come to the camp almost two months after R.E. but was graduating early after trimming a month off his sentence for good behavior.
Instead of pizza they ate bologna sandwiches. But their parents were there.
“Some guys came in and sailed through this program, and some others sort of stumbled a little, but they all eventually made it,” camp supervisor Bolender said at the ceremony, looking right at R.E.
“Now comes the hard part--going home.”
R.E. and Jaime both enrolled in an independent study program and began looking for work.
In R.E.'s final weeks at the boot camp, he had started taking a computer-repair course. He liked it, especially after learning that once he received a certificate, he could earn as much as $20 an hour.
Back in Ventura, he began canvassing computer firms for work. But he hadn’t completely given up his dreams of a military career.
Maybe he’d outgrow his asthma and the Marines would take him after all, he thought. Or instead of the Marines, maybe the California Conservation Corps.
Both R.E. and Jaime checked in regularly with their probation officer, Jiron.
Within two weeks of leaving the camp they each landed jobs: R.E. working at a computer store, and Jaime at his old job at a fast-food restaurant.
Jaime was also back together with his girlfriend, living with his folks and preparing to take his first Communion. So far he was still on track.
Jiron kept his eye on the boys, checking in with them at least once a week. Occasionally he would make a surprise visit.
He had been working on the job long enough not to get his hopes up.
“I measure our success in relative terms,” he said. “Maybe before they did the wrong types of things five times a week and now they’re doing the wrong type of things only two times a week. That’s something.”
But Jiron was not so skeptical that he didn’t hope that all the boys he watched over would turn their lives around.
“The day I don’t hope that is the day that I get another job,” he said. “I hope they’ll all make it.”
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Boot Camp Voices
“Apart from some promising work in New York, adult and juvenile boot camps have not saved money or affected recidivism rates.”
--Beth Carter of the
Campaign for Effective Crime
Policy in Washington, D.C.
“Boot camps are trendy. They floated a lot of money out there for this sort of program, so frankly that’s what we did.”
--Carol Hurtt, a former
division chief at Colston
Youth Center and the Juvenile
Restitution Program in
“I don’t think it was ever considered a cure-all. What it is is another option for us, and more space that we desperately need. We know some of these kids won’t make it, but we hold out hope for all of them. . . . We only have them for four months, and that’s often not enough time to overcome all those years of what they have grown up with.”
--Superior Court Judge
Melinda Johnson, who until
January was the presiding
judge of Ventura County’s
“This will definitely be your easiest day.”
--Dan Fondern, a former
Army officer, whispering to a
“When we say it’s time to ‘utilize,’ that’s when you use the latrine.”
--Sonia Alcantar, a juvenile
detention officer, providing a
glossary of camp commands
“Here they have a routine of school and work for four months. . . . I have confidence these guys are all going to make it because they know how to live on the streets. They know how to live by their wits.”
the camp’s supervisor
“OK, so if the buzzer sounds the end of the third quarter, what fraction of the game has gone by?”
--Math teacher Jeff Dominelli
“The boys that have been here for a while really start to read. Some have never spent any time reading, and here at the camp they get their first taste of what a book can do for you.”
“Any reading material will be placed on the reading shelf by staff. If the staff don’t put it there, you don’t read it.”
“I’m optimistic, but you never know. I know that at the camp they’ve learned discipline and self-respect, but it’s hard to unlearn what they picked up on the streets.”
“I measure our success in relative terms. Maybe before they did the wrong types of things five times a week and now they’re doing the wrong type of things only two times a week. That’s something.”
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About This Series
“County Report: Boot Camp Justice” is a three-part series that follows Ventura County teens through the Tri-County Boot Camp that opened in October. Today’s story details their final days at the camp and their experiences when they return home. County probation officials gave Times reporter Scott Hadly and photographer Spencer Weiner access to all aspects of the camp, but asked that the newspaper not print the last names of the boys there. In one instance, The Times is using a youth’s initials.