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Youth Authority to Review Use of Cages

Times Staff Writers

Under pressure to educate more juvenile prisoners and keep them and their teachers safe, the California Youth Authority came up with a novel solution in 1998: cages.

Today, those cages -- first hailed as a symbol of educational progress -- are being castigated as something more thoughtless and inhumane. And the Youth Authority is reviewing whether they should be eliminated.

For the record:

12:00 AM, Feb. 07, 2004 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday February 07, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 45 words Type of Material: Correction
Youth Authority facility -- An article in Friday’s Section A about youth offenders kept in cages during academic instruction incorrectly identified the California Youth Authority institution in Chino as the Herman G. Stark Youth Correctional Facility. It is the Heman G. Stark Youth Correctional Facility.

“Everyone -- everyone -- would like to get rid of these cages. It looks bad,” said Jerry Harper, the Youth Authority director who opted to maintain the system until he was replaced in December.

Cages remain in use, he said, because they work. Inmates assigned to them “have been in classrooms, but have been attacked. Or they fought in class, or on the way to class,” he said. The cages allow youths “to get an education and not attack teachers or be attacked,” he said.

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But to Youth Law Center lawyer Sue Burrell, the cages sum up the youth authority’s reliance on dehumanizing policies of “punish, punish, punish.”

The cages bring to mind circus animals, she said -- “Barnum & Bailey tiger cages ... dog kennels.”

At issue are 70 or so such cages now in use at the four highest-security youth prisons in the state. They were introduced in 1998 as a temporary compromise -- a way to make sure that inmates (called wards in the juvenile system) who were violent still received personal instruction, and were not left to languish in high-security cells.

The cages, called “secure program areas,” were highlighted in a recent series of critical reports on the agency’s 14 youth correctional facilities and camps, which house nearly 4,400 juvenile offenders.

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One report quoted a clergyman who called the cages “demonic,” and legislators have responded with demands for change. Youth Authority officials have promised to study their replacement.

The cages essentially are large boxes in which wards are supplied with a chair and desk, and teachers instruct them through a barrier of metal mesh or chain link. They provide a visually striking emblem of a system that critics say is fraught with danger.

But to some Youth Authority insiders, the cages represent something more complicated: a system cornered into sometimes bizarre contortions by new demands. Cages were a distasteful but necessary step to deal with conditions that outsiders often fail to appreciate, they argue.

“It is not as shocking to [teachers] as to people from the outside looking in,” said Jim Boyle, chief steward for the California State Employees Assn.'s District Labor Council 769, Stockton-Lodi, and a fine arts teacher at N.A. Chaderjian Youth Correctional Center in Stockton.

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Jesse Espinosa, another Chaderjian teacher, requested the cages for his classroom and does not consider them demeaning. He used to go from cell to cell handing out assignments, but found the wards were too easily distracted.

The cages are more quiet and personal, tend to reduce gang tensions and produce a better learning environment, he said. “Believe it or not, a lot of guys would rather come over here because they don’t feel safe” in a classroom setting, he said. “Sometimes the kids don’t want to go back.... I have to tell them, ‘Guys, you gotta go home.’ ”

The cages were themselves a response to reform demands. Their use began in 1998, when the Youth Authority, under pressure to improve education services, began seeking ways to better teach wards in lockdown status.

Previously, these wards, kept in high-security cells, got little teaching at all, said Kenneth Howell, a Western Washington University professor who served as a court-appointed monitor for education reforms in the Youth Authority.

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But the Youth Authority, sued in 1989 by the Youth Law Center on behalf of special-education students, was forced to drastically expand its school program, and by the late 1990s had embraced the idea of education so enthusiastically that it instituted a policy far beyond the requirements of law. It was called “no diploma, no parole” -- high school programs for all wards. The number of wards receiving diplomas while in custody shot up. The agency handed out 572 high school diplomas and GEDs last year.

Efforts to extend education to inmates in lockdown, however, did not go as smoothly. First, officials tried passing stacks of worksheets into the wards’ cells through food slots.

Advocates objected, so the Youth Authority sought another way. Officials were not able to say exactly how the cages came to be, but some agency observers said the first at the Herman G. Stark facility in Chino were adapted from small recreation pens. Others said the idea was copied from adult prisons.

The use of cages expanded to other Youth Authority institutions. After Stark and Preston, in Ione, Calif., begin using them, N.A. Chaderjian and Fred C. Nelles in Whittier followed suit. All are high-security facilities. About 400 wards are educated in cages, advocates say.

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For all that the idea had a medieval taint to some, the cages were a symbol of progress at the time. They showed just how far the Youth Authority was willing to go to educate arguably the most difficult students in the state.

The cages were built by the state Corrections Department, and their design varies. Those at N.A. Chaderjian are 4 feet by 4 feet, and made of square steel stock, as are those at Nelles and Preston, according to a Youth Authority task force report provided by Youth Law Center. Those at Stark are larger, and enclosed by chain-link fence.

Boyle, the teacher, said those he has seen are tall enough for standing, and wide enough for students to walk around. They are arranged in a semicircle around a teacher’s desk, and are equipped with slots at waist level for teachers and students to exchange papers.

The cages used to be gunmetal gray, the typical color of metal, he added, but have since been painted “blue and green, real pretty colors” to soften their look, Boyle said.

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Almost from the first, the cages sparked ambivalence. “They were a half measure. No one believed they would be there forever,” said Richard Rios, a physical education teacher at the Northern Youth Correction Reception Center in Stockton.

Some teachers had a gut-level reaction to trying to teach through chain link, wearing a flak jacket and confined behind a yellow line, he said. Yet now, many worry that without the cages, teachers would be exposed to new dangers, he said.

Teachers union leaders offered examples of belligerent wards who have exposed themselves, made threats, or “gassed” members of the teaching staff through the barriers of the cages -- dousing them with cupfuls of urine.

Such incidents probably would have been worse had it not been for the cages, Rios contends. (Youth Authority officials confirmed that attacks on teachers have occurred, but did not provide details.)

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Howell, the court-appointed monitor, said he remembers asking wards, “ ‘What do you think of this thing?’ They would say, ‘It’s fine with me. I don’t have to worry about my back....’ I guess I thought it was a legitimate compromise.”

The agency’s own task force on the cages concluded in 2002 that their use should be reduced, but did not recommend that they be scrapped.

Burrell, the public interest attorney, contends that there was no reduction in their use. The report said that some wards and teachers saw them as degrading, especially at first. But Harper contends that some wards deliberately committed infractions in order to be assigned to lock-up units with cages, where they felt safer.

Such defenses only underscore the unacceptable levels of violence in the system, countered Sara Norman, a staff attorney with the Prison Law Office, a nonprofit group which has sued the agency over conditions in the state’s youth prisons. “If the only place a ward feels safe is in a cage, what kind of system is that?” she said.

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Advocates want the agency to incorporate better conflict-resolution programs and treatment for violent wards, and a system to classify risks that wards pose. They argue that some youths who are not really dangerous are being relegated to cages.

The way to make the facilities safer for wards is “not to treat them like animals. It is to treat them like human beings,” Norman said.

“There is no real quick solution,” countered Rios, the teacher. “We will never give up on education, but it is not realistic to move from where we are right now ... to throwing these kids into a classroom.”


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