Disarray in Juvenile Prisons Jolts Capital

Times Staff Writer

Already grappling with a staggering budget crisis, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger faces a growing consensus that the state’s vast prison system is dysfunctional, corrupt and plagued by violence.

This week a series of reports hammered the juvenile system on all fronts, including the “decrepit” condition of its facilities, the “stunning” level of violence within its walls, and the substandard medical and psychiatric care it provides wards, as young inmates are called.

Those disclosures followed a federal court investigator’s report 10 days ago that the Department of Corrections, which runs the adult prison system, was plagued by a “code of silence” that protected rogue guards from punishment, corrupted recruits and was condoned by leaders at the very top.


In recent years, such disclosures have sparked little interest at the Capitol, where most politicians have protected the nation’s largest prison system and spared it from budget cuts. But times clearly have changed.

Last week, the new governor told the Sacramento Press Club that “we have a big, big problem that we have inherited ... in our prisons: corruption and all kinds of things.... I take this very seriously, this problem that we have.”

On Monday, he alluded to the crisis again in a radio interview, saying, “We want to clean the place up; we really want to bring order there.”

Legislators too are giving greater scrutiny to correctional facilities, which account for almost $6 billion in state spending each year.

On Tuesday, state Sen. Gloria Romero (D- Los Angeles) offered her assessment of the reports released on the Youth Authority. The reports, based on visits and confidential interviews, were prepared by independent experts as part of a class action lawsuit by wards alleging inhumane conditions in the juvenile prisons.

Calling those conditions “chilling,” Romero joined two corrections experts in demanding immediate reforms -- most notably, that the state stop isolating troublesome young convicts in steel-mesh cages not much bigger than phone booths.

Romero also said the Youth Authority was “totally failing” in its mission to rehabilitate youths who commit crimes, and suggested that a court order and a team of outside reformers might be needed to turn it around.

“We clearly have a juvenile detention system that is in chaos, ruled by fear and neglect,” said Romero, chairwoman of the Senate committee on corrections. Despite spending about $80,000 annually on each young offender, the Youth Authority has a “shameful” record, both in its treatment of juveniles and in the public safety results it delivers, she said.

In January, top administration officials were called to answer tough questions before a Senate oversight committee; more hearings are planned later this month. One senator called the penal system “rotten,” while another has suggested that the Department of Corrections is in such crisis that it might best be run by a federal court.

Roderick Q. Hickman, Schwarzenegger’s new head of the Youth and Adult Correctional Agency, has acknowledged “appalling” problems in the system and promised to root out corruption and push through reforms.

But already scholars who have tracked California prisons for decades are expressing concerns about two Schwarzenegger moves.

The first is his proposal to slash the budget of the Office of the Inspector General and put the prison watchdog agency under Hickman’s umbrella, where critics say it will be unable to operate independently. Also raising red flags was the governor’s statement Monday that he would bring in a team of experts to study problems in the prisons.

“The last thing we need is another task force or another study,” said David Steinhart, whose juvenile justice organization first published reports about problems in the Youth Authority 20 years ago. “What we need are leaders ... with vision to bring about change.”

Political analysts say Schwarzenegger needs to act decisively on the prison crisis, given the crescendo of troubling reports. But much of the electorate, they add, probably sees the crisis as an essentially intractable problem, immune to overnight fixes -- much like air pollution or other environmental ills.

“Most voters know that prisons are one of these ongoing crises,” said GOP strategist Dan Schnur. “So while it may bother them, they will be satisfied if they see their leaders striving toward a solution.”

Steve Maviglio, press secretary to former Gov. Gray Davis, called prison reform an issue “that is always politically volatile. Disturbing the status quo always will be challenging, because there are lots of personalities involved with lots of connections.”

Among those on the hot seat is newly appointed Youth Authority Director Walter Allen III. Steinhart and others expressed skepticism about Allen because his career has mostly been in drug enforcement, not in the juvenile or correctional fields.

In an interview, Allen called himself “a man of action” who is eager to “turn some pretty bad negatives into positives.” He said he was studying the reports and examining whether using the steel cages to segregate certain youths was necessary.

“That’s the one that leaps off the page at you,” he said. “I want to proceed swiftly, but I also want to proceed cautiously, so I can make a once-and-for-all correction instead of applying a Band-Aid.”

Introduced in 1998 and employed in no other state, the cages (about 70 of them are used in four prisons) were designed to permit teachers to safely educate wards who were in special detention -- sometimes for assault, more often for other misbehavior. Before the cages were introduced, Allen noted, these wards were taught through the food slots in their room doors.

Known as special protective areas, or SPAs, the cages vary in size. Those for educating youths are 4 feet by 4 feet wide and tall enough to stand in, officials said. A larger variety -- about 12 feet by 15 feet, and 10 feet high -- lets wards get a little exercise.

One of the experts’ reports said the cages had made some staff members feel safer. Other staff members, however, recognized that use of the cages could be “dehumanizing” and said they did not help resolve “the underlying conflicts that would flare up again as the wards were released.”

Romero called the cages barbaric, and said their use, combined with violence, use of Mace by staff members and other problems found in the experts’ exhaustive reports, reminded her of a 1930s mental institution.

Donald Specter, lawyer for the wards suing the state, agreed, saying, “We knew when we filed the lawsuit that things were bad, but we were frankly shocked by these reports.” He noted that one of the reviewers had called the level of violence in the Youth Authority “off the charts,” and the use of Mace unheard of elsewhere in juvenile detention systems nationwide.

“This is a system that needs a complete overhaul,” Specter said. “And I don’t know that one new director and one new secretary can do it by themselves.”

Sue Burrell of the Youth Law Center, an advocacy group for juvenile offenders, said many of the problems had been brought to light four years ago at legislative hearings. “Things are markedly worse,” she said. “It’s very frustrating and discouraging.”