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Camp Crackdown

Life is strict here at L.A. County's Camp Scott. Every move regimented. For some girl offenders, the stringent structure may be just what they need. But after their release, does the military-style training stick with them?

June 19, 1996|ELIZABETH MEHREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

No one said it would be fun, rising at 6 every morning, saluting the flag half an hour later and sitting in silence while you and 99 other girls hastily scarf down breakfast before morning formations or before you hunker down at a desk and grapple with the school subjects that bored you on the outside. (Remember, since you can't talk at meals, rap twice on the table if you want the water passed in your direction; three times for salt and pepper.)

This is jail, after all--and a military-style boot camp at that--not a cruise ship. Instead of air conditioners, there are swamp coolers in the barracks. You live and sleep in four units that veer out from a central command post. You share common bathing areas, communal toilets. You change clothes alongside everyone else. You are very close together, all the time. The people who run Camp Joseph Scott keep talking about teamwork, about collaboration and cooperation. This is not a good place to be enemies.

Several months ago, before she was arrested for possession of rock cocaine, Ivonne, 16, got into a fight with a rival gang member in East Los Angeles. Ivonne was stabbed 15 times, leaving her with scars that make her midriff look like a dartboard. Now her cot is maybe 50 feet from Nadia, the girl who stabbed her.

"I have some self-control, like I think, this girl is here, there's nothing you can do about it, and you just got to obey these people here who are telling you what to do," Ivonne says, sitting on her cot for a required respite of "rest or meditation." "That's kind of hard. I hardly listen to my mom, and now I got to listen to them?

"When I think about her"--Ivonne gazes in Nadia's direction--"I think, someday I'll get her. Someday I'll catch her sleeping."

Nadia, far tougher than she is tall, sounds impressed when she learns the extent of Ivonne's injuries. "Fifteen times? I didn't know I stabbed her that much." Nadia first stabbed another girl three years ago, when she was 14. She used a screwdriver then but later switched to a pocket knife. "Stabbing someone, when I'm doing it, I feel a lot of anger. And then it feels good, because I know I'm doing something with that anger." Nadia's brother died at 15 in a gang shooting. Her father succumbed to a drug overdose in 1990. Her mother works in a factory. Everyone Nadia knows is in a gang. From jail, she corresponds with her gang, as if she were away on a little vacation.

"I like my life on the streets, even though it's hard," Nadia says. "And I know one thing. I don't want to get old."

Just outside the fence at Camp Scott, a sign warns, "Cuidad con las Viboras: Beware of the snakes." Remote, and heavy with the scent of dry earth, the dusty terrain here in the Santa Clarita Valley is covered with vines, low brush and trees that droop to form bridal canopies over sun-baked clearings. It is reptile heaven.

It is also home to an unusual approach to this country's growing problem of female juvenile delinquency. About a year and a half ago, Camp Scott was quietly transformed into a military-style boot camp for girl offenders, one of only a handful around the country. On any hot afternoon--and afternoons are almost always hot in the easternmost quadrant of Los Angeles County--this means squadrons of girls in combat boots and khaki uniforms are out on a concrete exercise field, marching in strict drill formation. Their hair is pulled back in tight knots or cropped to the female equivalent of a crew cut. Their eyes are straight ahead, and if they don't want their entire company to earn demerits, their faces had better be expressionless. One misstep and they drop to the ground for 150 push-ups.

Commissioner James Ballew, a judge with the L.A. Superior Court in Pomona, was one of those who "yelled very loud" in the spring of 1994 to turn the 40-plus-year-old work camp into a rigidly disciplined facility for girls. Sentencing discretion--deciding where a youthful violator is jailed or what level of punishment he or she receives--rests with juvenile judges, and Ballew and others simply had too few places to send the girls who were showing up in their courtrooms with growing frequency, and for increasingly serious offenses.

"I was one of the many who kept moaning about no place to send the girls," Ballew says. The 5- to 7-year-old trend of girls carrying and using concealed weapons, committing severe property crimes and honing their skills at crimes involving bodily injury was more than just disturbing, in Ballew's view: "To me, it's outright frightening."

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