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A Night to Remember

L.A.'s most notorious youth lockup is an unlikely place for a prom. But Saturday evening, hat's just what it was.

June 24, 1999|SAM BRUCHEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

They call this place the crossroads.

It's where children pass the final days of their youth in bright orange uniforms and 10-foot-by-12-foot rooms that lock from the outside; and where the only reminders of life on the "outs" are murals of such heroes as Oscar De La Hoya and Florence Griffith Joyner on the concrete and barbed wire walls.

Until now.

On Saturday afternoon, the Los Angeles Central Juvenile Hall did what no other juvenile hall in the county has ever done: It held a prom.

The event was intended to give 73 youths--ages 16 to 19--a reward for earning their high school diplomas, something Central officials say minors in incarceration are altogether unaccustomed to receiving.

"It gives them an opportunity to feel proud," said Dr. Jennifer Hartman, assistant superintendent of the Los Angeles County Office of Education. "It lets them feel human again."

But some Central staff members worried that too much freedom, such as allowing direct contact between male and female minors--something Central ordinarily forbids--could lead to problems.

"We held a mixer last week and talked to the boys about treating the young ladies with respect," said Kenyaata Watkins, one of the coordinators of the prom. "Once that went well, it alleviated qualms we had about [the event]."

"Some people don't think the kids deserve a night like this," said Shirley Alexander, Central's superintendent. "But you've got to do more than stick kids in cells if you want them to rehabilitate and return to society."

Many Violent, Repeat Offenders

Most won't be returning to society any time soon. The facility, which holds 619 minors, making it the largest in Los Angeles county, is also the most notorious. Central houses more violent and repeat offenders in Los Angeles than any other facility. According to Central officials, all the boys and most of the girls attending the prom fall into that category.

Yet the prom, dubbed "Stepping Into the Next Millennium," went off without a hitch.

Beginning at 4 p.m. on a clear and breezy afternoon inside Central's vast interior grass courtyard, 45 nervous boys in black tuxedos, cuff links and stiff new shoes escorted 28 girls, who wore glittering gowns and walked unsteadily in high heels, to the gymnasium for four hours of dining and dancing.

All of the clothing for the event was donated by local merchants. Beauticians volunteered their time to style the girls' hair and apply makeup.

"They said they would come but only to do one girl," said Maria Alvarez, who sat on the prom committee. "But once they got here, forget about it. They were so touched, they didn't leave until every girl was done."

Outside the gym, couples stopped momentarily for a photograph in front of their choice of donated luxury car--Mercedes, Rolls-Royce or stretch limousine--to create the lasting impression of having arrived in style.

The gym was festooned with black, white and gold balloons, drawings and paper decorations. Appetizer arrangements included an apple juice fountain, mounds of cheese and crackers, and ice sculptures filled with fresh fruit. Dinner included chicken, baked potato and ice cream with strawberries and cookies for dessert.

"For a while I forgot that I'm incarcerated," said Martin, 17, from East Los Angeles, whose trial is set to begin later this summer. "This is the closest I'll ever get to a prom."

For others, however, the best part was just being able to move about without restriction.

Juveniles at Central typically march in highly structured groups, called movements. They are led by trained detention officers and are required to walk in silence, facing forward with their hands clasped behind their back.

Ordinary activities such as using the bathroom, making a phone call or writing a letter are privileges at Central that require permission.

"When I got here tonight," said David, a wiry 17-year-old who has been incarcerated for more than a year, "I wasn't sure if I needed to raise my hand to get up. I was afraid to walk around."

Security officers were worried that the freedom might lead to fights or even attempted escapes.

"You wouldn't know it tonight," said Duane Leet, who was in charge of security for the prom, "but a lot of these kids are aligned with hard-core street gangs and would be going at it on any other night."

Still, full precautions were taken. The event was staffed with 10 security officers, each carrying pepper spray. Tables were arranged in a semicircle, with minors seated farthest from the exits. And, throughout the night, minors were discouraged from clustering in groups or milling around the doors.

Good Behavior Was 'A Pride Issue'

The evening passed without the slightest ruffle, because, most said, nobody wanted to ruin a night this special.

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