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First Teen Inmates Leave the Men's Jail

November 15, 2003|Jean Guccione | Times Staff Writer

Four teenage boys once locked in their cells for up to 23 1/2 hours a day at the Men's Central Jail checked into their new temporary home Friday in Norwalk, where they will be allowed to attend classes and eat meals in common areas.

They are the first group of juveniles charged with adult crimes to be moved out of the Los Angeles jail since summer, when local ministers, youth advocates and others criticized the harsh conditions under which the young men were being detained while awaiting trial.

"This is like night and day," said Youth Correctional Officer Martin Figueroa, who visited the minors in jail and now supervises them at the California Youth Authority facility.

Most minors charged with adult crimes are housed at juvenile hall. But some youths -- 25 out of the 32 who were at the jail Friday morning are accused of murder or attempted murder -- were sent to the men's lockup after judges and probation officials deemed them escape risks or a danger to others at the hall.

The juveniles, who by law must be isolated from adult prisoners, were kept in their windowless 4-by-8-foot cells for all but half an hour each day, when they could shower and use the telephone. They received meals and lessons in their cells.

After advocates complained, the county Board of Supervisors entered into a $1-million contract with the state to house and provide state-mandated educational and mental health services for up to 48 minors until June.

The juvenile justice system is designed to rehabilitate, as well as punish, youthful offenders.

"My philosophy is that everyone is human and everyone makes mistakes. We are here to rehabilitate," said Viviana Martinez, the Norwalk facility's superintendent.

The CYA's mission, she said, is to "treat, train and educate."

Shirley Erker, who is in charge of the new juvenile unit, said that although the teenagers face serious charges, none has been convicted. "This kid might be living next door to you tomorrow," she said. "You don't know what a judge is going to do."

Some also may be paroled while still relatively young men, she said.

But not all of the 32 juveniles who woke up in jail Friday will be transferred, according to Sheriff's Capt. Ray Leyva, who runs the County Jail.

Those nearing their 18th birthdays will remain, as will juveniles convicted of adult crimes and awaiting sentencing, he said. Teenagers ordered to serve a year in County Jail also will stay behind.

Despite the county agreement with the state, judges must approve each move. A Lancaster judge has already denied probation officials' request to move two teenagers out of the jail.

The 17-acre site in Norwalk has a campus-like atmosphere, with a swimming pool and a large patch of grass inhabited by feral rabbits. It houses nearly 300 males, ages 13 to 25, ordered by the Juvenile Court to serve time for their crimes.

The newly transferred juveniles will be separated from the others by 14-foot-tall fences topped with razor wire. They will attend classes in two trailers. They will have access to a basketball court, picnic tables in the concrete yard and a television in the day room.

"Security is our top priority," said Sgt. Vincent Sillas.

As the youths sat in the large, sunny day room, they asked Officer Figueroa about visitation schedules, telephone availability and the time to be spent in their cells.

All those privileges, staff members told the inmates, are based on their behavior. Some minors with severe discipline problems may be required to stay in their cells for 23 hours a day. Most, however, will spend four hours a day at school, eat meals in the day room with other inmates and go outside for regular recreation periods.

"We hold them accountable for their behavior. Their rooms are to be made up in the morning," Sillas said. "We want them to have some sort of self-pride."

One youth smiled when he saw another officer open a brand-new box of black sneakers with Velcro straps and hand them to the young man sitting in front of him. Another commented on the cleanliness of the main building.

Javier Stauring, a lay Roman Catholic minister, was banned from the County Jail after complaining about the conditions for minors awaiting trial.

He has toured the new facility and met with staff. "I'm very hopeful," he said. "It just feels as though they are coming from a different perspective."

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