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Abuse Reports Cloud Youth Authority

The CYA has supplanted rehabilitation and education with punishment, a Times analysis finds. Inmates' stories of brutal treatment spur calls for reform of state agency.


PASO ROBLES, Calif. — At least eight times in the last three years, unruly wards at the state's El Paso de Robles Youth Correctional Facility were marched into the prison gymnasium, placed in handcuffs and made to kneel, sometimes until their legs went numb.

The young men, some of whom were on and off their knees through the day, settled onto thin mattresses at night. But sleep did not come easily. Guards performed "cuff checks" on the hour; some wards who dozed off complained that they were kicked awake.

As the ordeal continued, some prisoners who were put back onto their knees threw up or fainted. Others who couldn't hold out for the infrequent bathroom breaks were left to sit in urine-soaked clothing, wards and former staff members said.

On more than one occasion, this "temporary detention," known as "gym TD," lasted three days or more, with wards cuffed around the clock--a practice virtually unheard of in prisons elsewhere.

"They don't treat you like wards, they treat you like animals," said Ulises De Latorre, 18, of Buena Park, a veteran of such a session last May who is serving time for auto theft.

John Scott, a San Francisco attorney who has handled many correctional law cases, reviewed the handcuffing policy and said: "The worst of the worst in adult prisons are in better conditions than this."

Officials at the prison deny that they use the gym sessions to punish or abuse prisoners. They said prolonged detention is intended only to separate and control wards for their own safety when violence erupts inside the open barracks that house up to 55 prisoners.

But the practice of "gym TD" is emblematic of a transformation in the California Youth Authority, the agency responsible for some of the state's toughest young criminals. The Youth Authority spends $427 million a year to house 7,563 wards in 11 institutions and four firefighting camps.

In recent years, the agency's mission to rehabilitate and train wards of the state has been supplanted by a culture of punishment, control and, sometimes, brutality, The Times found in a wide-ranging review that included dozens of interviews and inspection of internal Youth Authority documents.

The state's once-heralded attempts to rehabilitate young offenders, ages 12 to 25, were de-emphasized as former Gov. Pete Wilson and the Legislature focused on punishment.

Hundreds of sexual predators, drug addicts and mentally ill inmates routinely go without prescribed therapy. Hundreds more, including suicidal inmates, are locked in cells 23 hours a day. Teenage wards often serve more time than their adult counterparts for similar crimes. And access to education, a traditional ticket out of the criminal world, is not assured.

Founded 58 years ago with high hopes and paternalistic ambitions, the Youth Authority prided itself on its compassion and its ability to turn wayward young people into productive citizens. Wards took field trips to the movies and the beach. But in recent years, the authority's facilities have become the lockup of last resort for young criminals--raising important questions for taxpayers and the state's political leaders.

Should violent young criminals--destined to return to neighborhoods from West Los Angeles to Westminster--still be treated differently from their adult counterparts? Can the Youth Authority do more to rehabilitate its young charges with the $38,200 a year it spends per ward--82% more than adult prisons spend?

In March, California voters will have an opportunity to decide whether to get even tougher on juvenile criminals. Proposition 21, sponsored by Wilson, would make it easier to try defendants as young as 14 as adults. The measure could send even more youths to already overcrowded prisons and Youth Authority facilities.

A crisis atmosphere inside the Youth Authority was heightened when Gregorio S. Zermeno, Gov. Gray Davis' handpicked director, was forced to resign Wednesday. He offered no explanation for his departure and has declined to comment on conditions at the youth prisons.

Pressure to reform the Youth Authority has been mounting for months:

* A state inspector general, appointed early this year by Davis, uncovered a pattern of brutality at the state's largest youth prison in Chino. A Davis administration official cited accounts of wards there being handcuffed and slammed into walls, forcibly injected with anti-psychotic medication, shot point-blank with potentially lethal riot guns and set up to fight gang rivals. As a result, Davis ordered an end to those practices and an overhaul of regulations on the use of force throughout the system.

* The Youth Law Center, one of the few independent groups that monitor the agency, has said that wards, including mentally ill inmates at a youth prison near Stockton, have languished in solitary confinement for months on end. As a result, center officials said in a letter, they "will be angrier and even less able to function successfully when they are released from custody."

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