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Youth Prison System Unsafe, Unhealthful, Reports Find

Inmates and staff are in danger, experts say, and medical care and counseling fall short.

February 03, 2004|Jenifer Warren | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — California's youth prison system is a violent place where juveniles and staff live in constant fear of attack, according to a set of confidential reports that also criticize the correctional system for substandard medical care, psychiatric counseling and schooling.

One of the reports says that at the California Youth Authority prison in Ione, east of Sacramento, juveniles with broken bones were denied prescription medication for pain.

"Not to treat these groups with narcotic pain medication when necessary is unprofessional conduct, unethical and cruel," said the report, written by a team of independent experts. Denying juveniles such treatment, its authors said, was a decision of the chief medical officer, who professed an "adamant" opposition to giving narcotic medication to juvenile offenders.

That report also said that inhalers often had not been provided to asthma sufferers and that youths sprayed with Mace -- a commonly used weapon in the system -- were sometimes not allowed to shower promptly, resulting in chemical burns on their faces.

"It's appalling. It's barbaric," said Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles), chairwoman of an oversight committee on prisons. "The Youth Authority is supposed to be about rehabilitation. You don't rehabilitate young people with these methods."

The reports were commissioned as part of a class-action lawsuit alleging inhumane, unconstitutional conditions within the Youth Authority, once a national leader in rehabilitating young offenders. They were based on interviews and visits to youth prisons by experts agreed upon by the state and lawyers for the wards, as juvenile inmates are called.

State corrections officials did not quarrel with the findings Monday, and promised reforms.

"The whole set of reports is alarming," said Tip Kindel, assistant secretary of the Youth and Adult Correctional Agency.

Kindel said the Youth Authority's new director, Walter Allen III, would address the problems quickly.

The reports follow the suicides last month of two teenagers at the youth prison in Ione. Deon Whitfield, 17, of Los Angeles, and Durrell Taddon Feaster, 18, of Stockton hanged themselves with bedsheets in the cell they shared, authorities said. Since 2000, there have been six suicides and 165 attempted suicides in the juvenile system.

The Youth Authority incarcerates about 4,400 wards in 11 institutions and four camps on a budget that totals $450 million this year. The agency was created in 1941 after activists had convinced the state that placing teenagers with hardened criminals in adult prisons was a bad idea.

For decades, the Youth Authority took a paternalistic approach to delinquent kids, rerouting them back toward a future as productive citizens. But over the last decade or so, the agency has become the destination of last resort for California's most violent young offenders, including murderers, rapists and carjackers.

Today, according to one of the reports obtained by The Times, violence within the Youth Authority is "stunning" and creates "an intense climate of fear." During the first four months of 2003, the staff at the state youth prison in Chino -- the Herman G. Stark Youth Correctional Facility -- used Mace, on average, more than four times daily to quell fighting among wards, the report said.

"These levels of ward-on-ward or ward-on-staff assaults are unprecedented in juvenile corrections across the nation," the report's author, Barry Krisberg of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, wrote. Many national corrections leaders, he added, were "astounded" by the violence within California's system.

Inadequate staffing, insufficient training in dealing with disturbed youth, antiquated facilities with "blind spots" that invite assaults, and a "reactive" approach to violence combine to create a system in which the staff and inmates fear for their safety, the report said. Some wards are so scared that they feign mental illness to win transfers into special housing, where staffing levels are higher and single rooms are available, Krisberg found.

In 2002, six of the youth prisons reported more than 4,000 infractions for ward-on-ward assaults -- or about 10 such attacks each day. There were an additional 85 infractions for wards who assaulted the staff, and 1,000 incidents of sexual harassment.

Particularly startling was the use of Mace at the Chino facility. During the first four months of last year, the facility housed an average of 872 youths. During that period, the staff used Mace against wards 535 times, or about four times a day. And in January of last year, 272 wards were Maced by correctional officers -- about 10 per day.

The report concluded that few wards blamed the Youth Authority staff for the violence in the system. Most simply believe the officers are powerless to prevent attacks.

The report on medical care painted a particularly chilling picture. Overall, it rated the healthcare as poor, and cited glaring deficiencies, from dental care at one facility to a total absence of preventive healthcare systemwide.

Of particular concern to the reviewers was the frequent use of Mace -- and the failure of the staff to permit many wards to quickly shower. That failure led to frequent blistering of skin and, in some cases, serious chemical burns. At one facility, the medical staff said it had met resistance from correctional officers when it attempted to check on ill wards or deliver medication, the report said.

Senate President Pro Tem John Burton (D-San Francisco) called the reports distressing and said they were "an indictment of the way the system has been run over the years.

"With this brought to light and with new people in charge over there, hopefully we'll be able to make necessary changes."

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