After spending four years in California Youth Authority facilities for armed robbery, Antonio Patterson wanted to party.
"I was hanging out in the streets, running wild, trying to make up for lost time," said Patterson, who was released at age 20.
The party was over before he reached 21. After only two months of freedom, most of it spent with friends on a street corner near Watts, Patterson was arrested on suspicion of possessing cocaine.
Now 23, Patterson is about to get his freedom again. This time, however, he'll have a steady job, a place of his own and some money in the bank.
Patterson is one of about 150 young men who each year spend the last days of their incarcerations readjusting to society at the Silver Lake Pre-Release Center, a 45-bed, no-security facility operated by the Youth Authority.
Its goal is to provide steady employment and practical life skills to young people who have been incarcerated during much of their formative years.
Anonymous Brick Building
"The whole idea is not to dump them out on the streets and say 'Report to your parole agent, and behave yourself,' " said John Shaw, 48, program director at Silver Lake.
The young men, whose average age is 19 1/2, are housed in an anonymous brick building that originally served as a Masonic lodge on a residential street near Santa Monica Boulevard and Vermont Avenue.
While there, they remain wards of the state and live behind a fence. But the gate opens every day and the young men are expected to venture out to do community work or go to a job. Patterson rides RTD buses to his job as an usher at the Cineplex Odeon Theatre complex at Universal Studios.
The Silver Lake facility, established in 1985, is the only one of its kind in the state. It began as an experiment, was judged a success and became a fixture, yet its programs were never duplicated. It survives as a much appreciated oddity.
The Youth Authority could use a dozen more programs like it, said Tony Cimarusti, assistant director of crime and delinquency prevention for the Youth Authority in Sacramento. However, its high operating cost, at $1.3 million a year, and the difficulty of establishing correctional programs in urban residential neighborhoods make the likelihood of duplication remote.
Cimarusti said the state bought the building, then a convalescent hospital, in the mid-1970s, a time when resistance from such neighborhoods was not as strong as it is today. Originally, the parole branch of the Youth Authority used the building for a program called Social, Personal and Community Experience. Youths lived there as a condition of parole after their release from Youth Authority camps and institutions.
Through its early years, the program was under-utilized, a result of the complex administrative procedures required to assign a parolee there, Cimarusti said. In 1985, the institutions and camps branch of the Youth Authority assumed administration of the program, allowing youths to be assigned or removed administratively.
Since then, Cimarusti said, there has been no problem keeping the Silver Lake facility at its capacity of 45 people.
Still, only a tiny fraction of the 2,697 wards released from the Youth Authority's 18 institutions and conservation camps last year were lucky enough to qualify for what amounts to early release to adjust to life outside.
There are no specific criteria for placement at Silver Lake. In general, youths who end up there have usually shown strong motivation and appear to need help breaking away from old patterns and associations, Cimarusti said.
To be considered for the program, the young men must have finished their commitment time and be working toward parole, a date determined by a parole board. Because of the residential location of the facility and the relative freedom of the youths, the program does not accept those with emotional problems or those who have committed sex crimes, Shaw said.
Shaw said the program's success rate is difficult to judge because recidivism statistics on the young men who have completed the program are not available.
And statistics alone might not be adequate to quantify the experience of youths who have been incarcerated during the years when most teen-agers are getting their first jobs and learning to handle responsibility.
"Basic skills learned by teen-agers are foreign tasks to these young men," said Carmella Ruiz, 47, one of 18 employees at the facility.
Johnny Vasquez, who resides at the Silver Lake facility, stood 5 feet, 2 inches when he was sent away and now has grown to 5 feet, 9 inches.
When he came to Silver Lake, he was unfamiliar with the bus system, which he now uses to get to work.
"I call the bus people and tell them I'm on Santa Monica and Vermont and where the nearest main street is that I want to get to," Vasquez said. "I didn't know how to do all this.
"I thought a telephone call still cost a dime," said Vasquez, who has been serving time for an armed robbery he committed at age 14.