Marcos Alvarez peers out the 8-inch window of his steel cell door, straining to catch a glimpse of the world beyond. There’s not much to see -- another door, an empty concrete hallway -- but it helps pass the time.
Alvarez, 19, spends about 23 hours a day in Cell No. 29 -- just him, a toilet, a sink and a narrow bunk. He does push-ups. He writes letters. He stares at a beaded cross. He thinks, “in my head, real quiet-like.” And he watches the food slot in that thick steel door, waiting for the next meal to arrive.
A wiry teenager who joined a gang at age 9, Alvarez lives in a special isolation cell, where he was sent after joining a fight in his regular housing unit at a state juvenile prison here in the Sierra foothills east of Sacramento. It’s hard time, but Alvarez says he has learned to cope with the harsh conditions. Others apparently have not.
Last month, two inmates were found hanging by bedsheets in their cell just a few doors down from Alvarez. Staff members said they had no reason to think the youths -- one 17, the other 18 -- might take their own lives. Their parents plan to sue, contending that the state failed to properly watch over them.
The deaths tragically highlighted a new series of reports by state-hired experts that hammered California’s youth penal system as a place where rehabilitation -- its stated mission -- is all but impossible, impeded by violence, gangs, poor mental health care and many other problems.
The result, the experts said, is that many juveniles leave the California Youth Authority worse off than when they entered. At least half of those paroled will be back.
Visits by The Times to three youth prisons -- and interviews with dozens of inmates and staff members -- reveal a beleaguered system struggling to cope with the toughest fraction of California’s young offenders, from serial burglars to rapists and murderers.
Success stories exist, and are celebrated. But even the most devoted youth counselors say today’s juveniles enter the CYA so scarred by shattered families, mental illness or drugs -- and so ensnared by gangs -- that optimism is elusive.
A Climate of Violence
When German Carranza arrived at Heman G. Stark Youth Correctional Facility in Chino five years ago, he worried about being stabbed. Carranza doesn’t worry anymore. He’s been stabbed several times.
For Carranza and many others, fear is such a constant in the CYA that it has faded into something more like background noise. Something forgettable but always present.
“Fear ain’t even here no more,” said the 23-year-old from East Los Angeles, doing time for murder. “The first couple of years, it was. You get so used to it that it’s like second nature.”
Stark is the largest of California’s 14 prisons and camps for offenders ages 12 to 25. It is also home to the oldest and most violent inmates, a place where the system’s troublemakers are shipped. “They’re not here for singing too loud in church,” said Phil Shimmin, an intensive treatment program administrator.
In recent years, violence has escalated at Stark. Attacks among wards -- as juvenile inmates are called by the state -- reached 296 last year, up from 115 the year before. That statistic probably understates the violence because many youths are reluctant to seek help or report assaults.
Violence against staff members, meanwhile, also is rising. In 2002, 26 staffers were assaulted by wards, via attacks and the throwing of urine or feces. The next year, that number doubled.
Though the volatility at Stark is alarming, violence appears to be the norm throughout the CYA. One outside consultant called its level of assaults unprecedented in juvenile corrections nationwide, and responsible for an intense climate of fear.
Those within its walls confirm that view. To survive in the youth authority, says one fidgety, 18-year-old car thief at the Fred C. Nelles Youth Correctional Facility in Whittier, you’d “better be on your tippy-toes.”
Inmates say the system is dominated by a fighting culture that puts a premium on aggressiveness and makes constant low-level conflict a fact of life. Young men with a reputation for being tough or neutral are left alone. Those viewed as weak or annoying are targeted.
And today’s prey can quickly become tomorrow’s predator.
Prey to Predator
Benjamin, a tall young man with a severe overbite and a sad, distant manner, personifies that truth. A convicted sex offender from Los Angeles, Benjamin, 19, asked that his last name be kept private, fearing gang retaliation.
Like many inmates, Benjamin glumly describes fighting as a necessary precaution in prison. He was transferred to Nelles from another facility after three enemies ambushed him -- one jumping him from behind, the others kicking him in the stomach.
“I fell down. My braces were cutting into my gums,” he recalled. “The guards in the tower saw it but by the time they got there, I was already messed up.”
Benjamin spent three tough weeks recovering in the infirmary. But he acknowledged that he had done his own share of menacing behind bars. Recently, he served time in lockdown -- isolated confinement with loss of privileges -- for the crime of “pressuring,” or humiliating another inmate by taking his possessions.
“You have to make a decision between being a punk and being someone who gets respect,” he explained. “If you’re a punk, you get the negative stuff and they say things to you and take your stuff. But if you fight, they won’t.”
Fists are the most common weapon in the CYA, but there are exceptions. A bar of soap wrapped in a sock can be deployed in a painful assault known as “packing.” Pencils and other items are fashioned into spears. At Stark, officials removed light switches from cells when officials learned that wards were removing the metal plates and using them as weapons.
And at the Preston Youth Correctional Facility in Ione, civics teacher Judy Allen saw one teenager use a razor blade to slice another’s throat, ear to ear, just missing the jugular vein.
“We’ve got a much more criminally sophisticated crowd in here now,” said Randy Cantrell, a correctional counselor at Preston for 18 years. “So you’ve got more trouble with the big fish preying on the little fish.”
In Northern California, gang allegiances define most of the violence -- and countless other aspects of CYA life. Wards at Preston say that if a brawl involving a fellow “homie” breaks out, they are required to jump in, a move that invariably leads to time in an isolation cell and can tack months onto one’s sentence.
Travis White, 19, of Oakland said those fights erupt several times a month, mostly at night in the dorms, where wards sleep with security lights on and beneath gray cotton blankets on bunks stacked two or three high.
“We all jump off our beds and fight until the [guard] throws a pepper bomb,” which explodes with a stinging gas that quells the disturbance -- and burns the skin and eyes, White said. “Everybody’s got enemies, and they strike at night to catch you off-guard.”
Gang members also are expected to retaliate if disrespect is shown toward one of their own -- to “jump when the gang says jump,” as one teacher put it. Many boys, reluctant and fearful, opt to provoke such a scuffle when staff members are close at hand, hoping to prove their mettle while avoiding a severe beating.
In Southern California prisons, fighting breaks out more along racial lines. Unlike adult lockups, youth facilities are integrated. But an imbalance in the numbers, officials say, makes the larger group -- in Stark’s case, the Latinos -- more powerful.
“If you are black,” said Clemente Baez, a San Bernardino youth doing time at Stark, “you’ve got to stay on your feet all the time. Even at church.”
Part Puerto Rican, part black, Baez is light-skinned. At home, he belonged to a Latino gang. But Baez’s younger brother also is at Stark. His skin is darker; he belongs to a black gang. So Baez chose to align himself with the blacks. In his 18 months there, Baez said, he has been jumped more than 16 times. Each incident was racially motivated. His first beating occurred on his third day, when three Latinos attacked him in “the blinds,” an area that staff members can’t readily see.
“It felt like forever,” Baez recalled, “but I’m sure it was only a few minutes.”
The youth authority is a place of marked contradictions. Reflecting its paternalistic past, red-brick housing units at some facilities are called “lodges” or “cottages,” with many bearing soothing names such as “Oak” and “Sequoia.”
But in a grim reminder of its present population, steel cages, some barely large enough to stand in, are used in classrooms to confine the most unruly wards. It is a practice called barbaric by critics and found only in California -- and one that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has pledged to phase out.
Unlike their counterparts in the adult system, where punishment is the mandate, officers in the CYA commit to the goal of rehabilitation, and education is a priority. They carry no firearms but they are armed with panic buttons and mace.
In too many cases, say the experts’ reports, officers may be ill-trained in verbal persuasion or how to handle someone with a mental illness. As a result, the reports say, they sometimes opt to spray a misbehaving youth -- even when he is not posing an immediate threat.
As for the wards, many alternate between shyness and swagger. One moment, they excitedly ask for news of the Lakers, grow nostalgic over their mothers and, at Preston, lament that the swimming pool was closed last summer -- apparently, they were told, because the state ran out of chlorine.
In the next breath, however, they proudly display gang tattoos, reminisce about pitching in on a drive-by shooting, or boast of making “fast money” selling crack in their hometown.
Even the youth authority’s aesthetics are schizophrenic. Many facilities have a campus-like look, with shirtless wards shooting hoops or playing handball as officers watch with their whistles, like playground attendants.
But in the system’s special detention units, those who misbehave are confined nearly 23 hours a day, emerging in handcuffs only for a shower, a change of boxer shorts and a brief group session with a teacher or counselor. Staffers said some wards feign suicide attempts in the hope of winning transfers out of the isolation cells and into a mental health program.
On average, youths are confined in the restrictive units for 60 to 90 days -- far in excess of what is common in other states, where a week is more typical. Such extended stays were harshly criticized in last month’s reports, with one expert saying the “severe isolation is antithetical to sound treatment practices” and “produces illness and hostility.”
Tamarack, a grimy, turn-of-the century building at Preston that resembles something out of a Dickens novel, is one such unit. Chilly and dim with terrible ventilation, its two tiers of cells sometimes emit a startling din as youths shout obscenities, howl and bang on the doors of their cramped, graffiti-covered cells. The former CYA director, Jerry Harper, flatly called Tamarack “a dungeon.”
“If you don’t know how to handle it, it can make you crazy,” said Alvarez, the Preston gang member incarcerated for his role in a drive-by shooting who has done two tours in the lockdown units. “You have to keep busy, keep your mind occupied. That’s hard for the younger kids.”
One overriding theme defining the youth authority is the violent, traumatic backgrounds shared by those within its walls. With few exceptions, they come from unstable, often one-parent homes and from neighborhoods where success, belonging and manhood are defined early on by gun-toting, drug-dealing gangs.
Most enter the system with rap sheets that might begin as early as their 10th birthday and feature an accelerating pattern of crime, from vandalism to burglary to carjacking, with truancy shadowing it all. A majority come with mental health problems and addictions; many have learning disabilities.
Michael Turner, 18, a soft-spoken youth from San Francisco, is a case in point. At age 2, Turner was picked up by workers for the city’s child protective services agency, who found him wandering in the streets. Placed in a foster home, he fared well for a while, but gradually began stealing, skipping school and fighting. Bounced in and out of group homes and juvenile hall, he finally wound up in the CYA on a robbery charge.
Robert Trejo, 18, grew up in Pomona and did five stints in Los Angeles County probation camps, plus three sentences in juvenile hall, before ending up at the youth authority more than a year ago. A methamphetamine addict who says his “head was messed up” by the drug, he’s still waiting for a spot in a treatment program. Like many wards, he can’t call his family because they have no home phone.
English teacher Doug Woods, a 17-year veteran of the youth authority, says the traumas that accompany boys who enter his classroom are overwhelming, requiring intensive therapy -- far more than the CYA budget permits. Indeed, some of the strongest criticism in last month’s reports targeted the system’s dearth of mental health services and properly trained psychologists.
Woods uses selections from “Les Miserables,” “The Odyssey” and “Beowulf” to expose his students to a world that most have never imagined. But what they need even more desperately, he said, is a mentor with individual attention to give.
“The teen years are hard enough, but these kids -- they just feel hopeless,” Woods said. “I tell them, ‘Don’t give up. It’s your life.’ But I just don’t have time to have those conversations very often.”
Time for one-on-one contact is something that staff and their young charges both seem to crave. Though some of the tougher inmates profess no fondness for any aspect of the CYA, some teenagers say it turned around their lives and invariably credit a certain counselor or psychologist for just being there and listening.
With budgets continually tight, however, staff-to-ward ratios don’t allow for much personal time. And, staff members say privately, not all who work within the CYA are equally passionate about rehabilitation.
“There are very good, devoted people here who care very much about these boys,” one veteran teacher said, “and there are some very bad people here who couldn’t care less.”
One seemingly bright spot is Redwood, Preston’s living unit for 37 wards who need intensive mental health treatment -- including eight who are housed in suicide-watch rooms equipped with cameras. Like many other successful state programs, Redwood has a waiting list.
Inspirational sayings posted on the walls help set the unit’s motivational tone: “Wise men are not always silent, but know when to be” and “Always forgive your enemies. Nothing annoys them so much.”
When Johnny Alatorre arrived at Redwood in 2001, those words held little meaning. Born and raised in Anaheim, Alatorre started running with a gang at age 13, when he came home and found his guardian -- his grandmother -- dead from a drug overdose, a needle stuck in her arm. With his mother in a mental hospital and his father abusive, Alatorre’s grandmother had been his lone port in the storm.
After he was bounced in and out of juvenile hall for a string of offenses, Alatorre’s criminal life peaked when he fled town in a stolen car and finally got caught outside a Las Vegas casino. He was 16, and there were no more second chances in county lockups after that; Alatorre was packed off to the CYA.
His initial time, at Nelles in Whittier, did not go well. Depressed, hyper and haunted by visions of enemies entering his room, he tried to hang himself. “They cut me down after about two minutes,” he recalled, then sent him to Preston.
At first, things seemed no better. “I was doing back-flips off the sink in my room,” he said, because “I didn’t know how else to release my emotions.” But Randy Randall, a counselor he credits with saving his life, sat outside his door on the worst nights, just talking and providing support.
Gradually, constant therapy -- sometimes three times a day -- and medication chased away the visions and brought balance and self-confidence into his life.
Now a poised 18-year-old with short-cropped black hair, a faint mustache and a whimsical smile, Alatorre is counting the days until he can be released on parole later this year. He will live in a halfway house; he hopes to reunite with a younger brother and plans to become a chef.
“I don’t care if I have to start at Burger King or McDonald’s,” he said, “I know I’m going to get there.”
Andy Diaz, 18, serving a sentence for a gang murder he committed when he was 13, has a similar tale to tell. A slight youth from Huntington Park with intense, dark eyes and an earnest gaze, Diaz was among a half-dozen inmates lounging on bunks in Nelles one recent day, playing cards, chatting and listening to Walkmans.
When he came to Nelles, fighting dominated his thoughts. He sought “enemies,” and attacked them without provocation, “messing up” so much, he said, that he once spent six months in lockdown. In a cell 23 hours a day, he “came out all pale,” he said.
But these days, Diaz is getting his high school diploma, aims to go to technical college and plans to become an electrician. He described himself as a kind of peacemaker, proudly recounting his efforts to defuse conflict among younger inmates.
“If I was out,” he said, “I never would have learned all this. I probably would have been dead by now.”
Few Happy Endings
Staff members love to share the success stories, which offer a small solace in a world that is typically grim. But even the CYA’s most ardent defenders agree that happy endings come far too infrequently. Shimmin, the Stark staffer who has worked at the CYA for 29 years, says today’s wards are more dysfunctional and violent than the ones he saw earlier in his career. He believes the answer is more treatment programs.
“But treatment programs are expensive,” he noted, “and you know the state of the budget.”
The governor has not proposed a major increase in the CYA budget, now $450 million.
Cantrell, the correctional counselor at Preston, says the system needs to return to an emphasis on vocational training, so that wards who want to make good have a shot at a job.
“Most of these guys are not going to end up wearing a suit and tie on the 15th floor,” he said, gesturing at a roomful of boys lounging on orange plastic chairs in the Hawthorne living unit. “They’re the guys who are going to put new tires on your car or change your oil. And we’re not doing enough to help them get there.”
Alvarez says he, for one, could use that kind of help. At 19, he admits somewhat sheepishly that he has never held a job and has “no idea about a resume or that kind of thing.” After taking part in a gang shooting in South San Francisco at age 15, he fled and lived, incognito, in Lake County for two years before his arrest in 2002.
With any luck, Alvarez said, he will avoid the gang fights and earn parole in May of next year. But for now, he is spending 23 hours a day in an 8-by-10-foot cell with no view of the emerald-green hills rolling eastward right out back.
Times staff writer Jia-Rui Chong contributed to this report.