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A Night to Remember

TIMES STAFF WRITER

They call this place the crossroads.

It’s where children pass the final days of their youth in bright orange uniforms and 10-foot-by-12-foot rooms that lock from the outside; and where the only reminders of life on the “outs” are murals of such heroes as Oscar De La Hoya and Florence Griffith Joyner on the concrete and barbed wire walls.

Until now.

On Saturday afternoon, the Los Angeles Central Juvenile Hall did what no other juvenile hall in the county has ever done: It held a prom.

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The event was intended to give 73 youths--ages 16 to 19--a reward for earning their high school diplomas, something Central officials say minors in incarceration are altogether unaccustomed to receiving.

“It gives them an opportunity to feel proud,” said Dr. Jennifer Hartman, assistant superintendent of the Los Angeles County Office of Education. “It lets them feel human again.”

But some Central staff members worried that too much freedom, such as allowing direct contact between male and female minors--something Central ordinarily forbids--could lead to problems.

“We held a mixer last week and talked to the boys about treating the young ladies with respect,” said Kenyaata Watkins, one of the coordinators of the prom. “Once that went well, it alleviated qualms we had about [the event].”

“Some people don’t think the kids deserve a night like this,” said Shirley Alexander, Central’s superintendent. “But you’ve got to do more than stick kids in cells if you want them to rehabilitate and return to society.”

Many Violent, Repeat Offenders

Most won’t be returning to society any time soon. The facility, which holds 619 minors, making it the largest in Los Angeles county, is also the most notorious. Central houses more violent and repeat offenders in Los Angeles than any other facility. According to Central officials, all the boys and most of the girls attending the prom fall into that category.

Yet the prom, dubbed “Stepping Into the Next Millennium,” went off without a hitch.

Beginning at 4 p.m. on a clear and breezy afternoon inside Central’s vast interior grass courtyard, 45 nervous boys in black tuxedos, cuff links and stiff new shoes escorted 28 girls, who wore glittering gowns and walked unsteadily in high heels, to the gymnasium for four hours of dining and dancing.

All of the clothing for the event was donated by local merchants. Beauticians volunteered their time to style the girls’ hair and apply makeup.

“They said they would come but only to do one girl,” said Maria Alvarez, who sat on the prom committee. “But once they got here, forget about it. They were so touched, they didn’t leave until every girl was done.”

Outside the gym, couples stopped momentarily for a photograph in front of their choice of donated luxury car--Mercedes, Rolls-Royce or stretch limousine--to create the lasting impression of having arrived in style.

The gym was festooned with black, white and gold balloons, drawings and paper decorations. Appetizer arrangements included an apple juice fountain, mounds of cheese and crackers, and ice sculptures filled with fresh fruit. Dinner included chicken, baked potato and ice cream with strawberries and cookies for dessert.

“For a while I forgot that I’m incarcerated,” said Martin, 17, from East Los Angeles, whose trial is set to begin later this summer. “This is the closest I’ll ever get to a prom.”

For others, however, the best part was just being able to move about without restriction.

Juveniles at Central typically march in highly structured groups, called movements. They are led by trained detention officers and are required to walk in silence, facing forward with their hands clasped behind their back.

Ordinary activities such as using the bathroom, making a phone call or writing a letter are privileges at Central that require permission.

“When I got here tonight,” said David, a wiry 17-year-old who has been incarcerated for more than a year, “I wasn’t sure if I needed to raise my hand to get up. I was afraid to walk around.”

Security officers were worried that the freedom might lead to fights or even attempted escapes.

“You wouldn’t know it tonight,” said Duane Leet, who was in charge of security for the prom, “but a lot of these kids are aligned with hard-core street gangs and would be going at it on any other night.”

Still, full precautions were taken. The event was staffed with 10 security officers, each carrying pepper spray. Tables were arranged in a semicircle, with minors seated farthest from the exits. And, throughout the night, minors were discouraged from clustering in groups or milling around the doors.

Good Behavior Was ‘A Pride Issue’

The evening passed without the slightest ruffle, because, most said, nobody wanted to ruin a night this special.

“It’s a pride issue,” said Corey, 18, who was selected prom king on the basis of his essay about leaving the past behind. He and prom queen Sylvia, 19, shared the first dance. “We wanted to prove to everyone that if they showed faith in us to do good, then that’s what we were going to do.”

An encouraging attitude from hard-core offenders.

“Some of these kids are looking at 25-years-to-life sentences,” said Marty Fontain, a teacher at Central’s school. “For them to finish their degrees in spite of all the distractions in a place like this is extraordinary.”

One of those distractions is a transfer to someplace worse, such as the California Youth Authority or San Quentin, which comes when a juvenile turns 19. So for many at Central, education takes on an entirely different meaning.

In prison, a GED can mean a safer yard assignment with offenders who are less violent. It can also mean greater store privileges, or better jobs, including clerical, library or even tutorial work.

Mostly, though, education becomes a source of pride.

“I passed my GED as soon as I got here so I could do something for my mother,” said Charlie, 17, who described himself as a “very high-risk offender.” “Taking classes has also eased the pain of being locked up and taken my mind off court.”

In the last several years, the number of minors earning their high school diplomas or GEDs in Los Angeles juvenile halls has increased dramatically. This year, 998 graduated from high school; nearly 600 more than in 1994, according to Larry Springer, director of Juvenile Court and Community Schools in Los Angeles.

Springer attributes the rise, in large part, to the increased number of GED test centers. Several years ago, minors could only take the GED at one juvenile facility in the county. Today the test is offered once a month at every juvenile facility.

Those at Central, however, give credit to the school’s strong curriculum, year-round classes and favorable student-to-teacher ratio of 17 to 1. Students, they say, routinely overcome reading deficiencies measured at three or four years beneath grade level.

And this year’s reward for that progress may be incentive for future inmates hoping for a prom of their own, although officials have not yet committed to future dances.

After the prom, detention officers bent the rules and allowed the boys to talk as they marched back to their units. They laughed about the dancing, the music and those who missed out by not graduating.

“These kids are going to be talking about this night for a long time,” said Joe Sills, a senior detention service officer, as he pointed to the shadowed figures of other boys staring out from their rooms at the returning group. “They’ll make sure the other kids know how good this was.”

“I’m not saying they wouldn’t go out and make the same mistakes again if they were let out today,” Sills said. “But tonight they weren’t murderers, thieves, thugs, rapists and all the rest of that madness. Tonight they were kids.”

Sam Bruchey can be reached by e-mail at socalliving@latimes.com.


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