Marcos Alvarez, 19, spends 23 hours a day in a call maintained by the California Youth Authority in a prison near Sacramento, reports the Los Angeles Times–just him, a toilet, a sink, and a narrow bunk. He does push-ups, writes letters, stares at a beaded cross. He thinks, “in my head, real quiet-like.” He watches a slot in a thick steel door, waiting for the next meal to arrive. Last month, two inmates were found hanging by bedsheets in their cell a few doors from Alvarez. Their parents plan to sue the state.
The result of poor conditions in youth corrections facilities, experts say, is that many juveniles leave worse off than when they entered. At least half of those paroled will be back.
The Times visited three youth prisons and interviewed dozens of inmates and staff members. Its report shows a beleaguered system struggling to cope with the toughest young offenders, from serial burglars to rapists and murderers. Success stories exist, but even the most devoted counselors say juveniles enter so scarred by shattered families, mental illness or drugs, and so ensnared by gangs, that optimism is elusive.
The New York Times has added its account of problems in California Youth Authority facilities. The paper’s summary of experts’ conclusions: “Youths with psychological problems are ignored or overmedicated, classes are arbitrarily canceled, and inmates or whole institutions are locked down for days or weeks at a time because of recurring gang violence.” Conditions in many institutions were described by experts as “deplorable,” with blood, mucus, and dried feces on the walls of many high-security cells. Youths in solitary confinement are often fed “blender meals,” in which a bologna sandwich, an apple, and a carton of milk are pulverized and fed to the inmate by straw through a slit in the cell door. What’s more, one report on the authorisy says that, “The vast majority of youths who have mental health needs are made worse instead of improved by the correctional environment.”
“Levels of ward-on-ward and ward-on-staff assaults are unprecedented in juvenile corrections across the nation,” Barry Krisberg of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency wrote. “It is abundantly clear from a range of data that I collected as part of this review that the Youth Authority is a very dangerous place and that neither staff nor wards feel safe in its facilities.”
The Times interviewed an incarcerated former Los Angeles gang member with an “anger problem” who spends 23 hours a day in a 4-by-8-foot cell. Other than for showers, he leaves the cell only to receive instruction or counseling, when he is confined inside a steel mesh cage. Said the inmate: “It’s not a good place to be. It’s a jail. You’ve got to deal with it.” Asked whether he was receiving any useful treatment or training, he just shook his head.