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The State

Suit Assails Conditions at Youth Prisons

Corrections: Alleging 'deplorable' practices, litigants say goal of rehabilitation has been usurped by punishment.

January 25, 2002|JENIFER WARREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — Juvenile convicts are routinely Maced and assaulted by guards, live in constant fear of being raped and are sometimes locked in solitary confinement 23 hours a day for months on end, according to a lawsuit alleging that conditions within the California Youth Authority are unconstitutionally inhumane.

The class-action suit, filed Thursday in federal court in Sacramento, paints a horrifying picture of life inside the CYA, which was once a national model for its rehabilitation of wayward youth.

Drawing on the stories of 11 inmates, the lawsuit claims that many of California's youngest offenders are forcibly injected with mind-altering drugs, denied psychiatric care, housed in units where they are vulnerable to sexual assaults and sometimes schooled while locked in metal cages.

"The list of deplorable conditions truly goes on and on," said attorney Richard Ulmer Jr., whose firm, Latham & Watkins, is assisting with the suit. "The California Youth Authority as it exists today should be an embarrassment for all Californians."

Ulmer and other lawyers on the case stressed that there are many good people doing good work in the CYA, the agency responsible for the state's toughest young offenders. But they believe that the system's statutory goal--rehabilitation--has been displaced by a culture of punishment and, in some cases, brutality.

The Youth Authority's director, Jerry Harper, was not available to comment. But his spokesman--while declining to respond to specific allegations--said most of the charges were a "rehash" of old problems that the agency already is working to fix.

Spokesman George Kostyrko also said each allegation of abuse is promptly investigated, and he strongly disputed the charge that the agency has abandoned its goal of rehabilitation.

"We take the mission of the Youth Authority extremely seriously," Kostyrko said, "and that mission is treatment."

Agency Long Touted Its Compassion

Founded in 1941, the Youth Authority houses 6,300 inmates in 11 institutions and four camps. The average age is 19, the average stay 29 months. This year's budget is about $437 million.

The agency was created after activists decried the inhumanity of placing teenagers alongside hardened criminals in California's adult lockups. For years the agency prided itself on a paternalistic, compassionate approach to rerouting delinquent kids back toward a future as productive citizens.

But over the past decade or so, the authority has become the destination of last resort for some of the state's most violent young offenders, including murderers, rapists and carjackers. At the same time, politicians have favored punishment over rehabilitation.

In recent years, the authority's methods have come under fire from numerous sources, including the Legislature and the state inspector general. But the Davis administration, critics say, has failed to respond in a meaningful way.

The suit caps a yearlong inquiry that included interviews with more than 100 wards. It was filed by 11 named plaintiffs but on behalf of all of those incarcerated by the agency.

Chris Stevens, 18, says that he was sexually assaulted at two CYA facilities--and that his efforts to get guards' help were spurned.

After he was raped by two wards at Preston Youth Correctional Facility east of Sacramento, Stevens says, he told his counselor and filed an emergency grievance--even though the assailants had warned him not to tell. Instead of protecting him, a staff member told other wards about the rapes, the lawsuit says. One of the rapists beat him up a few days later.

Plaintiff Edward Jermaine Brown, 17, was allegedly forced to live in a small, filthy solitary confinement cell in the "dungeon-like" basement of an old Preston building, the lawsuit says. The toilet often did not work for days, and Brown frequently refused to eat his "blender meals--an indiscriminate mush that was made by mixing his daily food ration all together in a blender."

During the one hour per day that Brown was removed from the cell, he was placed outside in a "cage, where he was unable to perform any meaningful exercise." Brown was kept in solitary confinement for seven months, apparently for scuffling with a guard.

The lawsuit also alleges substandard medical care, citing the case of ward Randy Jones, 24. After a fight caused a rupture in his eye, a doctor at the CYA's Chaderjian facility in Stockton treated the injury and left a temporary plastic tube beneath the eyelid.

The tube was supposed to be removed after two months, but Jones was transferred to another facility. There, four attempts by state doctors and outside practitioners failed to remove the tube, which was causing continual discomfort, the suit says. It was not until one year later, when Jones was sent back to Chaderjian, that his original doctor finally took out the tube.

"I thought the Youth Authority is supposed to be doing these boys good, said his mother, Carlene Jones. But they injure them; they abuse these young men. There is no help at all."

The suit alleges violations of the 1st and 14th amendments, the Americans With Disabilities Act and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. It seeks a court order directing state officials to make prompt efforts to fix the substandard conditions.

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