At least eight times in the last three years, unruly wards at the state’s El Paso de Robles Youth Correctional Facility were marched into the prison gymnasium, placed in handcuffs and made to kneel, sometimes until their legs went numb.
The young men, some of whom were on and off their knees through the day, settled onto thin mattresses at night. But sleep did not come easily. Guards performed “cuff checks” on the hour; some wards who dozed off complained that they were kicked awake.
As the ordeal continued, some prisoners who were put back onto their knees threw up or fainted. Others who couldn’t hold out for the infrequent bathroom breaks were left to sit in urine-soaked clothing, wards and former staff members said.
On more than one occasion, this “temporary detention,” known as “gym TD,” lasted three days or more, with wards cuffed around the clock--a practice virtually unheard of in prisons elsewhere.
“They don’t treat you like wards, they treat you like animals,” said Ulises De Latorre, 18, of Buena Park, a veteran of such a session last May who is serving time for auto theft.
John Scott, a San Francisco attorney who has handled many correctional law cases, reviewed the handcuffing policy and said: “The worst of the worst in adult prisons are in better conditions than this.”
Officials at the prison deny that they use the gym sessions to punish or abuse prisoners. They said prolonged detention is intended only to separate and control wards for their own safety when violence erupts inside the open barracks that house up to 55 prisoners.
But the practice of “gym TD” is emblematic of a transformation in the California Youth Authority, the agency responsible for some of the state’s toughest young criminals. The Youth Authority spends $427 million a year to house 7,563 wards in 11 institutions and four firefighting camps.
In recent years, the agency’s mission to rehabilitate and train wards of the state has been supplanted by a culture of punishment, control and, sometimes, brutality, The Times found in a wide-ranging review that included dozens of interviews and inspection of internal Youth Authority documents.
The state’s once-heralded attempts to rehabilitate young offenders, ages 12 to 25, were de-emphasized as former Gov. Pete Wilson and the Legislature focused on punishment.
Hundreds of sexual predators, drug addicts and mentally ill inmates routinely go without prescribed therapy. Hundreds more, including suicidal inmates, are locked in cells 23 hours a day. Teenage wards often serve more time than their adult counterparts for similar crimes. And access to education, a traditional ticket out of the criminal world, is not assured.
Founded 58 years ago with high hopes and paternalistic ambitions, the Youth Authority prided itself on its compassion and its ability to turn wayward young people into productive citizens. Wards took field trips to the movies and the beach. But in recent years, the authority’s facilities have become the lockup of last resort for young criminals--raising important questions for taxpayers and the state’s political leaders.
Should violent young criminals--destined to return to neighborhoods from West Los Angeles to Westminster--still be treated differently from their adult counterparts? Can the Youth Authority do more to rehabilitate its young charges with the $38,200 a year it spends per ward--82% more than adult prisons spend?
In March, California voters will have an opportunity to decide whether to get even tougher on juvenile criminals. Proposition 21, sponsored by Wilson, would make it easier to try defendants as young as 14 as adults. The measure could send even more youths to already overcrowded prisons and Youth Authority facilities.
A crisis atmosphere inside the Youth Authority was heightened when Gregorio S. Zermeno, Gov. Gray Davis’ handpicked director, was forced to resign Wednesday. He offered no explanation for his departure and has declined to comment on conditions at the youth prisons.
Pressure to reform the Youth Authority has been mounting for months:
* A state inspector general, appointed early this year by Davis, uncovered a pattern of brutality at the state’s largest youth prison in Chino. A Davis administration official cited accounts of wards there being handcuffed and slammed into walls, forcibly injected with anti-psychotic medication, shot point-blank with potentially lethal riot guns and set up to fight gang rivals. As a result, Davis ordered an end to those practices and an overhaul of regulations on the use of force throughout the system.
* The Youth Law Center, one of the few independent groups that monitor the agency, has said that wards, including mentally ill inmates at a youth prison near Stockton, have languished in solitary confinement for months on end. As a result, center officials said in a letter, they “will be angrier and even less able to function successfully when they are released from custody.”
* The chief probation officer of San Luis Obispo County, John Lum, announced that abuse in the authority’s institutions has become so rampant he asks juvenile judges not to ship any more wards to those facilities. “In many cases we are making them worse,” said Lum, “which is a real threat to the public safety.”
Earlier this fall, Zermeno issued a memo declaring a policy of zero tolerance for abuse of prisoners and said he was moving to clean up brutal practices uncovered by the inspector general’s office at the youth prison near Chino.
In one case this year, the youth agency has shown a willingness to punish instances of excessive force: Five guards were fired for allegedly beating up several prisoners in their cells at the Fred C. Nelles Youth Correctional Facility in Whittier.
Sean Walsh, who served as Wilson’s press secretary, said there may have been occasional instances of mistreatment reported to headquarters. But he added: “It didn’t come back to us that there was a systemwide problem with abuse of wards.”
Officials of the prison guard union, which represents many authority employees, say that officers need more tools to control violent wards. They have protested Davis administration restrictions on the use of riot control weapons.
An Urban Horror Story
If the problems confronting the California Youth Authority could be capsulized in a single case, it might be that of Ward No. 75806. In his 4-inch-thick file, Michael Euzell Jacques’ young life is revealed like some urban horror story.
Born 20 years ago in a car at Crenshaw and Adams boulevards in Los Angeles, Jacques was the 17th of his father’s 18 children. His mother was a crack addict. In trouble with the law by the age of 9, Jacques was molested by a friend of his father, then sent to a foster care group home later closed by the county because children were mistreated there. When Jacques sexually abused a young cousin, a judge sentenced him to a county probation camp.
The 5-foot-8, 130-pound Jacques earned his ticket to the “YA,” as wards call it, by purposefully bumping a staff member at the county camp. Once inside, Jacques gained a reputation as a foul-mouthed, recalcitrant, sometimes violent prisoner. His sentence has been extended nearly 3 1/2 years for fighting, gang activity and other misbehavior.
The state inspector general has found credible Jacques’ reports that he was abused by staff members during his months in the security housing unit at the Heman G. Stark Youth Correctional Facility in Chino, according to a Davis administration official.
The prisoner recalled in an interview one particularly violent incident at “The Rock,” as the facility is called.
Guards repeatedly “fogged” him with a chemical agent he believes was pepper spray after he refused to give up his mattress and have his cell stripped for disciplinary reasons, Jacques said. When he continued to resist guards, an officer shot him at close range with rubber bullets meant to be bounced off the ground from a distance to disperse groups, he said.
Jacques, who was temporarily paralyzed, said he had 45 minutes in an isolation cell to nurse his stinging eyes and a bruise on his thigh before guards released him into a hallway for another confrontation. A staff member slammed him to the ground, then two others held him as a nurse injected medication into his buttocks, Jacques said.
He conceded that he had blocked the small plexiglass window in his cell, authorities’ only means of monitoring his activities. But he said the response--particularly the forced injection, which put him to sleep--far outweighed his offense. “I am not going off. I’m not wiggling around on the floor. So what is the point in injecting me . . . against my will?” Jacques asked. “I was being violated.”
A Campaign for Reform
It was nearly 60 years ago that reformers began to view separate correctional facilities for juveniles as the solution to youthful crime.
Activists decried the inhumanity of placing teenagers and young men alongside hardened criminals in California’s adult prisons. So in 1941, California Youth Authority ward No. 1 was liberated from San Quentin prison, where he had been sent for killing a cruel uncle in Monterey County.
That ward was Barney Lee, 14, and his case attracted nationwide attention that led to the teenager’s eventual transfer to a new training school in Whittier.
Through the 1950s and 1960s, the authority built facilities capable of housing hundreds of young men and women. (Currently, only about 330 of the wards are female.)
Under the traditional juvenile justice notion of parens patriae, the state assumed the role of parent in wayward juveniles’ lives. Wards lived in open barracks called “cottages” and were supervised by counselors in civilian clothes.
Forty percent of today’s wards continue to live in those open dorms with quaint names like San Simeon Cottage. But most have left petty theft far behind. Nearly two-thirds of the prisoners are committed for violent crimes such as rape, murder and assault, compared with the 47% who were violent offenders just a decade ago. About 44% require special handling for some mental dysfunction. Gang affiliation and racial animus are rampant.
At the same time, the state’s political leaders have focused on punishment over rehabilitation. The population of adult prisons during the 1980s nearly tripled. Today, 33 adult lockups hold 161,000 prisoners.
Juvenile offenders are met with the same tough stance. In October, a bill (SB 334) signed by Gov. Davis required that 16-year-old repeat criminals be charged as adults for violent crimes. Wilson’s Proposition 21 on the March ballot would bring the juvenile justice evolution full circle by making it easier to prosecute 14-year-olds as adults.
Administrators inside the fences of Youth Authority prisons have already drawn a harder line.
Prisoners are allowed to post little or nothing on their walls. Relatives can no longer send magazines or books into some institutions because officials fear contraband will be smuggled in. Weightlifting equipment has been restricted, as it has at all adult prisons.
Nearly 2,000 wards are waiting to get into drug rehab programs; nearly 700 more can’t find beds in programs for severe psychological disability or sexual deviance. Between being restricted to their cells for bad behavior and other factors, only about half of the 1,300 wards at Chino attend classes, records show.
At some of the facilities, wards who are deemed too dangerous for regular classrooms are placed in cages, called “secure program areas,” before teachers approach them.
In 1997, the agency dropped the “Youth Training School” name attached to many of its facilities and switched to “Correctional Facility,” a title then-Director Francisco Alarcon considered more accurate.
Wards typically have their sentences extended by the Youthful Offender Parole Board if they misbehave or fail to complete programs. The result of these “time adds” is that youthful offenders spend more time incarcerated than their adult counterparts for almost every crime except murder, the agency’s records show.
Many longtime employees say that correctional officers, schooled more like police in their five-week training course, now set the tone inside institutions that used to be dominated by social workers.
“People who had a responsibility for custody in CYA were put in uniform, and a more military type of atmosphere was developed,” said Allen Breed, a Youth Authority director in the 1970s and a nationally recognized corrections expert. “People no longer saw the primary mission as treatment.”
One employee questioned by the inspector general described an incident in the security housing unit at the Stark facility in Chino. In the 1997 episode at The Rock, a counselor slammed a handcuffed prisoner into a metal tray slot mounted on a cell door, the employee said, adding that the scrawny youth was knocked momentarily unconscious, his head bloodied. Ordered to return to his cell, the dazed teenager was crawling toward it when the counselor kicked him in the groin, said the employee.
“He did it just for the hell of it,” said the employee, adding that the prisoner had been compliant. “For no reason at all.”
Like many other staff members interviewed by The Times, this employee requested anonymity, fearing retaliation by co-workers or superiors.
A disgusted authority teacher added: “Wards used to leave with the means to support themselves and to change. One of the things we find most appalling now is that they are leaving so angry. It’s almost a joke among staff: We hope they don’t move to our neighborhood.”
Indeed, Anthony Lopez, an 18-year-old East Los Angeles gang member, said the brutal treatment will backfire. “We are growing up inside of here,” said Lopez, whose juvenile crimes included assault and weapons possession. “And the rage inside us is growing too.”
The ‘Friday Night Fights’
The Youth Authority is locked in an identity crisis, trapped between the rehabilitative promises of the past and the stringent culture of the present. At The Rock, for instance, an attempt to let wards prove they could get along with each other degenerated into a venue for more aggression.
During the one hour a day when wards were released from their cells, staff members placed them together in a concrete room and monitored their compatibility. Those who did not fight for three such sessions were considered eligible to return to the prison’s general population.
But the original purpose of the sessions became perverted by some staff members, who placed the most hostile prisoners in the room with known rivals, sources said. The staffers came to relish the brawls that inevitably broke out. The “Friday night fights” became a ritual reminiscent of “gladiator” contests staged by guards at the maximum security Corcoran State Prison for adults (though some of those brawls ended in prisoners’ deaths when guards shot them to break up the fights).
Some wards left the Chino sessions bruised and battered, their most violent instincts reinforced, critics said.
“We had no choice. It’s the rules” at The Rock, said one former ward--"part of your survival kit in there; you have to fight to survive.”
At some institutions, administrators have asked to maintain the old, open cottages, saying they help bring wards and staff closer together. “There is more interaction and more rapport in open dorms,” said Kate Thompson, superintendent of the 52-year-old Paso Robles prison, halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco. “The more rapport you have with wards, the safer the facility is.”
But housing as many as 55 aggressive wards in a single room facilitates violence, outside observers say. The state’s Little Hoover Commission, a watchdog agency, has found that brawls in the barracks lead to punishments that in turn lead to longer sentences and keep wards from classes and therapy sessions.
And at El Paso de Robles, they are sent to gym TD. The extended handcuffing has become so notorious within the Youth Authority that even wards of other youth prisons can describe the sessions in detail.
One former employee of the Paso Robles facility recalls instances when guards dragged prisoners around the gym floor by their handcuffs. In a 1996 instance much discussed among wards and staff and described in an internal report, a youth counselor taunted gym detainees by dangling a gopher on a string over them. The matter was investigated only months after it happened, when a teacher complained.
When Ulises De Latorre went to gym detention after a racial melee early on the morning of May 3, he was joined by about 50 young inmates. They were herded into the gymnasium, stripped to their boxer shorts and handcuffed, according to a log kept by the prison. The restraints stayed on some wards for the next three days through showers, meals and bathroom breaks.
By 3:30 that first morning, the inmates were “laying face-down on mattresses with belly chains,” according to the tersely worded log. “Blankets still yet to arrive.”
Wards who got out of line were placed on their knees--for 10 minutes or less, the log says.
In other instances of gym TD, wards were on their knees for an hour or more, inmates and staff members said in interviews. One inmate said that after 30 minutes on his knees, in handcuffs, he lost feeling in his legs.
The longtime supervisor of the gym sessions, Lt. Dan Marquez, declined to comment. But Supt. Thompson, denying wards were ever on their knees for more than 10 minutes, said she stands by the policy. Gym TD is “the safest and most humane” way to protect prisoners and staff after disturbances, she said.
Still, sensitive to questions raised by The Times and the inspector general, the authority has revamped the policy in recent weeks to limit the kneeling to five minutes at a time and prohibit shackling of inmates’ legs. Video cameras are being installed to monitor detention sessions.
Robert Presley, appointed by Gov. Davis to head the super-agency that oversees the Youth Authority, said his office will continue to monitor the use of force on juveniles at Paso Robles.
Presley said other changes--building smaller institutions and improving educational opportunities--might better rehabilitate wards. But he said no such changes are imminent, partly because of cost.
“Overall [the Youth Authority] is doing a good job, given the fact that they have this higher percentage of violent inmates now,” Presley said. “But it needs some fine tuning. I think we’ll have it humming pretty soon.”
Next: Experts call for fundamental changes in the youth authority.
* AGENCY CHIEF QUITS
Gregorio S. Zermeno has been forced to resign as head of the agency. A3