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'Crisis Situation' at Juvenile Hall : Corrections: Inmates and an overworked staff are feeling the pressure and tension at the crowded facility. Officials are scrambling for a solution.

March 30, 1995|MACK REED | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ventura County's Juvenile Hall is severely overcrowded.

The Ventura facility measures it in numbers: in the daily average of 120 offenders squeezed into cell space built for 84 since January.

But the teen-age inmates and overworked staff there actually feel the pressure--in shorter family visits and more frequent blasts of pepper spray used to break up fights, in frayed jail clothing and frazzled nerves.

Ventura County's rising population and relentless gang warfare are causing a boom in juvenile jail sentences, pushing the 46-year-old facility into what Juvenile Hall Division Manager Richard Humeston calls "a crisis situation."

Staff there are working harder. The Ventura facility is spending up to $1,000 a day on overtime pay, he said, just to keep staffing in the cellblocks at a safe level.

Inmates are staying longer, too.

Once a mere holding pen for pretrial inmates or youths bound for rehabilitation programs, Juvenile Hall now houses some inmates who have been sentenced to one or two months of incarceration.

And the waiting list for transfers from Juvenile Hall to rehab programs such as the Colston Youth Center is growing.

In 1993, no more than 15 were awaiting transfers at any given time. This week, 23 inmates are awaiting beds in Colston, which expects only four vacancies in the next 30 days, said Colston Director Terry Warnock.

"We desperately need a new Juvenile Hall," Warnock said Wednesday. "Not only is it not big enough, it was never designed to house the kind of kids who are there."

County justice officials are scrambling for a solution.

Probation chief Frank Woodson has been negotiating the possibility of opening a juvenile offenders' boot camp with Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo County authorities.

And probation officers and social workers are laboring to bring on line a full counseling program for teen-agers after release from jail aimed at stopping them from breaking the law again.

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But until a pressure valve is opened somewhere, authorities say they must keep pairing teen-age offenders in a single cell on beds two feet apart, paying overtime and praying that nothing goes horribly wrong.

"It's been real bad," said Corrections Officer Ernie Robledo. "We've got different gangs in here, and you can feel the tension."

State law requires one corrections officer to watch every 10 inmates.

But overcrowding sometimes leaves only two officers for more than 30 teen-agers--many of them gang members itching to fight.

Rival gang members once were housed in separate units, when Juvenile Hall's population was lower, Humeston said. More often now they are forced to live in close quarters.

"These kids hate each other out on the street and even in here," he said Wednesday. "We try to avoid putting two warring kids in the same room, but we can't keep them all locked down except for disciplinary reasons."

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Corrections Officer Pat Sharpe said, "There's just so much that can happen with 31 kids and just two staff."

Some kids get claustrophobic, pounding on their doors and screaming if they are locked in their cells for longer than usual, she said.

Last Thursday morning, two fights broke out in her unit. As Sharpe and a colleague tried to quell one fight in the showers, another pair of inmates started scrapping in the day room and six more officers had to be called in.

"We've been lucky," Sharpe said. "You always have fear in the back of your mind that something's going to happen . . . . It's a time bomb."

Corrections Officer Mario Reyna added, "You're overwhelmed."

The inmates complain, too--about family visits cut from 60 minutes to 20, about extended waits for showers or meals, and about getting shortchanged on classes and exercise periods.

Sometimes, staff shortages mean inmates can attend only the 90-minute afternoon school session--which is nearly an hour shorter than the morning session, said one inmate.

"If you come out in the second half, you're getting cheated," griped a Santa Paula boy, 17, an eight-time inmate serving time for auto theft.

Inmates sometimes must sleep without a pillow or wear tattered jail-issue clothing, said another 17-year-old, holding out a T-shirt sleeve with a gaping hole.

The teen inmate boom was not unexpected. County officials predicted years ago that juvenile incarceration would swell beyond the 153 beds available at Juvenile Hall, Colston and the Juvenile Restitution Program.

"The problem really transcends the overcrowding," said Juvenile Court Judge Steven Z. Perren. "The overarching problem is having sufficient resources to treat juveniles in a way that stops them from offending."

Perren said money for new programs such as a boot camp could come from the huge fees now being paid to place some offenders in group homes.

But unless and until an affordable solution is found, said Cal Remington, deputy director of the probation department, the cells will still be packed at Juvenile Hall.

"We're trying to take only the more serious offenders but we still have too many," he said. "If we don't book or detain the more serious offenders, there's more scrutiny from the public. Although we don't like being overcrowded, we're not going to release serious offenders."

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