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State Youth Prisons on Road to Rehab

Times Staff Writer

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Tuesday unveiled plans for an overhaul of California’s prisons for the young, turning his focus to a system that has been widely maligned for its violence, substandard healthcare and failure to steer wayward youths toward a law-abiding future.

The governor’s announcement, along with the appointment of a special master, marked the settlement of a lawsuit challenging conditions in the California Youth Authority, where some of the state’s most troubled and violent juvenile convicts are confined. The agreement must still be approved by a federal judge.

“The lawsuit said that California should have done a better job with its young offenders,” the governor said in remarks at a notorious youth prison here, “and it was right.... We are on the right track now.”

The agreement will “put the focus back on rehabilitation” and give the CYA’s 3,700 young inmates “a better chance to succeed in life,” he said. The settlement is good for California, he added, because it will reduce crime and save the state millions of dollars that would have been spent fighting the lawsuit.

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The settlement requires the state to develop -- by January -- detailed plans to improve virtually every aspect of the CYA’s operations, including its management of gangs, treatment of the mentally ill and use of force by staff.

The Youth Authority also agreed to a set of short-term fixes, including the development of a system to separate vulnerable inmates from dangerous ones, reducing the time prisoners spend in isolation cells, and improvements in the handling of inmates on suicide watch.

Youth and Adult Corrections Secretary Roderick Q. Hickman said the CYA had become “entrenched in its ways,” and that the agreement would help it “become the national leader that it once was.”

Overseeing the state’s progress will be San Francisco lawyer Donna Brorby, who was named special master and will alert the court if efforts fall short. No cost estimate for the reforms has been reached.

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Longtime critics of the Youth Authority called the settlement a worthy effort that would improve the lives of inmates, but said it does not go far enough.

“This agreement does not transform the CYA, it merely brings it up to a tolerable level,” said David Steinhart, a veteran juvenile justice expert. “The danger is that the governor will tie a ribbon around this and call it a day, when there’s a lot more that needs to be done to re-engineer the system.”

Steinhart and others said that what’s missing is any requirement that the state house inmates in smaller living units, as opposed to the massive prison-like facilities that typify the CYA. Most researchers believe -- and several states have proved -- that small groups more effectively foster the human connections troubled youths need to turn around their lives.

CYA Director Walter Allen III acknowledged that “in a perfect world, we would love to have smaller living units.” Now, however, “that’s not feasible,” although Allen is exploring a small pilot project to test the concept.

The settlement comes after a year of intense turbulence for the CYA, beginning with the release of a videotape showing two correctional counselors at the Stockton prison kicking and striking two young inmates as they lay facedown on the floor.

The two employees, as well as four others who stood by during the beatings or filed misleading reports, were fired over the summer from their jobs at the N.A. Chaderjian Youth Correctional Facility. They have appealed and are seeking reinstatement by the state Personnel Board.

That incident, which received nationwide attention, came on the heels of the suicides of two teenagers at the state youth prison in Ione, east of Sacramento. Deon Whitfield, 17, of Los Angeles, and Durrell Taddon Feaster, 18, of Stockton hanged themselves with bedsheets in the isolation cell they shared. In the last five years, there have been seven suicides and hundreds of attempted suicides in the juvenile system.

Another controversy for the system came last spring when the state stopped holding inmates in cages while they were being schooled.

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With eight prisons and three camps, the CYA was created in 1941 after activists decried the inhumanity of placing teenagers alongside hardened criminals in California’s adult lockups. For years the agency prided itself on a paternalistic, compassionate approach to managing delinquent kids.

But over the last decade or so, the Youth Authority has become the destination of last resort for the state’s most violent young convicts, ages 14 to 25. At the same time, critics say, its statutory mission of rehabilitation has been eroded by a focus on punishment more typical of adult prisons.

The lawsuit was first filed in federal court in 2002 as a class action alleging unconstitutional treatment of inmates. It was brought by a coalition of law firms, including the nonprofit Prison Law Office and Latham & Watkins, which provided pro bono assistance.

Last year, the lawsuit was refiled in state court as a taxpayer action, alleging, in essence, that the CYA was improperly spending state funds on unlawful practices.

The plaintiff is Margaret Farrell of Reseda, whose nephew, mentally ill inmate Edward Jermaine Brown, was locked in a filthy isolation cell for 23 hours a day for seven months, the lawsuit said. The toilet in the cell often did not function and Brown was fed “blender meals,” a whipped mix of food groups, through a straw pushed through his cell door.

Since the lawsuit was filed, the CYA has closed the housing unit where Brown was locked up and stopped the blender meals.

Richard Ulmer, a lawyer on the case, said the Davis administration initially “fought us tooth and nail” over the suit. But Schwarzenegger’s team, he said, “brought a totally different attitude overnight.”

As part of the settlement talks, independent experts were hired to study the Youth Authority. Their reports, released in February, portrayed a system in which violence was “off the charts” and medical care, psychiatric treatment, education services, gang management, and suicide prevention were inadequate. Under the agreement, the authors of those reports will serve as consultants as CYA officials develop detailed reforms, which must be filed with the court by the end of January.

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The special master, Brorby, will ensure that the state is meeting its obligations. Though not empowered to order specific actions, she may alert the court to any changes she deems necessary to enforce the settlement.

Brorby was selected after months of disagreement over whom to pick. She has served as deputy special master in a case over mental healthcare in California’s adult prisons, and was the lead lawyer in a long-running lawsuit over conditions in the Texas correctional system.

She will be paid by the CYA, have free access to all its facilities and will issue quarterly reports assessing the state’s progress on its reforms.

“I’m neutral,” Brorby said in an interview, “and I don’t have an agenda. I will work with the parties to comply with the order.”

After his announcement of the settlement Tuesday, Schwarzenegger took a 30-minute tour of Chaderjian, a complex of squat, cream-colored buildings with blue trim encircled by chain-link fencing topped with coiled razor wire.

Among his stops was a housing unit, home for 48 inmates with acute mental health problems. Standing in an elevated control booth with windows on all sides, the governor overlooked a spartan day room with orange plastic chairs, a ping-pong table and several metal tables bolted to the floor. About 10 young men were gathered, and one waved back at the governor when he waved to the group.

Gesturing to a television monitor hooked to cameras inside the unit’s six suicide-watch rooms, the governor asked correctional officer Greg Gittere about the troubled young men who do time in those cells.

“What makes them try to commit suicide?” he said. “Mental illness? Depression?”

Gittere said it could be “a variety of things,” and noted that those who are “extremely suicidal” are put on a one-on-one watch with a staff member.

“And do they get medication?” the governor asked.

Yes, Gittere replied, noting that the unit is staffed by psychiatrists.

“You have your hands full,” Schwarzenegger said, shaking his head.


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