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State Report Criticizes Coed Juvenile Facility

CYA: Inspector general cites problems and costs of separating male and female wards. Closure of the center suggested.

July 15, 2002|DARYL KELLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Three years after sex scandals and mismanagement prompted broad reform at California's only coed juvenile prison, a new state investigation has found "serious problems" at the Ventura Youth Correctional Facility and recommended it either be limited to only female inmates or possibly closed.

The highly critical audit by Inspector General Steve White cites a host of administrative problems at the Camarillo youth prison, many related to the need to separate male and female prisoners.

But it fails to address fresh allegations by a prison volunteer that male employees sexually exploit young female wards--a claim still under review by White's office.

The new report focuses on essential services that fall through the cracks at the Ventura facility because employees and facilities must be shared by young men and women who are separated by a $1-million, 16-foot-tall fence and cannot come into contact with one other. Numerous pregnancies of female wards over two decades prompted the costly segregation.

"This separation of males and females, which is the result of several incidents between wards of both genders, has created duplication of services and a stain on resources," White said in a 54-page report to California Youth Authority Director Jerry Harper.

"The institution's problems encompass the full spectrum of the facility's operation," White said, "including ward treatment services, medical services, mental health services, education, fund-raising, internal investigations and institution security."

The audit found that the Ventura facility is weeks late in evaluating the mental health of female prisoners, many of whom have emotional problems; that some prison practices jeopardize the health of wards and babies born to them; and that the prison fails to provide counseling sessions to inmates as required by law.

The report, released last week to Assemblywoman Hannah-Beth Jackson, prompted the Santa Barbara Democrat to call for a joint hearing in August before the Senate Public Safety Committee and the Legislative Women's Caucus.

"I'm very troubled by these findings," said Jackson, vice chair of the women's caucus. "And when you put it in the context that they've had four superintendents in five years in Ventura, there are some real problems there."

Jackson also called for a complete investigation into allegations by Sheryl Fisher, a former volunteer at the youth prison. The Somis resident--a mentor, literacy tutor and chaplain's aide to wards for 3 1/2 years--has complained to the inspector general, Jackson and other state lawmakers about what she sees as a pattern of sexual misconduct by employees.

"I want it cleaned up," Fisher said in an interview Friday. She said she resigned as a volunteer in frustration in February partly because her complaints prompted little change.

"It didn't stop the hanky-panky between the adult males and the females," she said. "The females are manipulative, but that doesn't mean the males should go along. It's against the law, and the law is being broken there."

Fisher said two former inmates told her they had sex with employees while imprisoned. She said she's aware of several guards and counselors who wards say trade favors for sex.

The only way to stop such conduct, Fisher said, is to remove male guards from oversight of the female wards--a change state officials say is opposed by the prison peace officers union and may not be effective anyway.

Harper, the youth authority director, said Friday he welcomed the inspector general's recommendations--and a legislative hearing--as ways to improve not only the Ventura facility but the entire youth authority system of 11 prisons and four camps.

Once a nationwide model, the system has drawn fire from the Legislature, the inspector general and youth law advocates in recent years for subjecting wards to excessive force and for failing to offer mental health and rehabilitation programs.

"I think we're making improvements, but we've got a long way to go in some areas," said Harper, a former Los Angeles County assistant sheriff hired 25 months ago to reform the system. "We've focused on the girls, the young ladies, in Ventura. We can't solve all of the problems in a year or two, but we're making progress."

Harper confirmed that the inspector general is conducting a separate inquiry into sexual misconduct by Ventura County employees.

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