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A Daily Lesson in Violence and Despair

For many juveniles in the state's youth penal system, the effort to survive overshadows hope for rehabilitation.

February 17, 2004|Jenifer Warren, Jill Leovy and Nora Zamichow | Times Staff Writers

IONE, Calif. — Marcos Alvarez peers out the 8-inch window of his steel cell door, straining to catch a glimpse of the world beyond. There's not much to see -- another door, an empty concrete hallway -- but it helps pass the time.

Alvarez, 19, spends about 23 hours a day in Cell No. 29 -- just him, a toilet, a sink and a narrow bunk. He does push-ups. He writes letters. He stares at a beaded cross. He thinks, "in my head, real quiet-like." And he watches the food slot in that thick steel door, waiting for the next meal to arrive.

A wiry teenager who joined a gang at age 9, Alvarez lives in a special isolation cell, where he was sent after joining a fight in his regular housing unit at a state juvenile prison here in the Sierra foothills east of Sacramento. It's hard time, but Alvarez says he has learned to cope with the harsh conditions. Others apparently have not.

Last month, two inmates were found hanging by bedsheets in their cell just a few doors down from Alvarez. Staff members said they had no reason to think the youths -- one 17, the other 18 -- might take their own lives. Their parents plan to sue, contending that the state failed to properly watch over them.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday February 18, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 47 words Type of Material: Correction
California Youth Authority -- The caption for a photo with Tuesday's Section A article on the California Youth Authority mistakenly stated that a juvenile was taking instruction while locked in a cage. He was in fact being held in a waiting cell, before a meeting with someone.

The deaths tragically highlighted a new series of reports by state-hired experts that hammered California's youth penal system as a place where rehabilitation -- its stated mission -- is all but impossible, impeded by violence, gangs, poor mental health care and many other problems.

The result, the experts said, is that many juveniles leave the California Youth Authority worse off than when they entered. At least half of those paroled will be back.

Visits by The Times to three youth prisons -- and interviews with dozens of inmates and staff members -- reveal a beleaguered system struggling to cope with the toughest fraction of California's young offenders, from serial burglars to rapists and murderers.

Success stories exist, and are celebrated. But even the most devoted youth counselors say today's juveniles enter the CYA so scarred by shattered families, mental illness or drugs -- and so ensnared by gangs -- that optimism is elusive.


A Climate of Violence

When German Carranza arrived at Heman G. Stark Youth Correctional Facility in Chino five years ago, he worried about being stabbed. Carranza doesn't worry anymore. He's been stabbed several times.

For Carranza and many others, fear is such a constant in the CYA that it has faded into something more like background noise. Something forgettable but always present.

"Fear ain't even here no more," said the 23-year-old from East Los Angeles, doing time for murder. "The first couple of years, it was. You get so used to it that it's like second nature."

Stark is the largest of California's 14 prisons and camps for offenders ages 12 to 25. It is also home to the oldest and most violent inmates, a place where the system's troublemakers are shipped. "They're not here for singing too loud in church," said Phil Shimmin, an intensive treatment program administrator.

In recent years, violence has escalated at Stark. Attacks among wards -- as juvenile inmates are called by the state -- reached 296 last year, up from 115 the year before. That statistic probably understates the violence because many youths are reluctant to seek help or report assaults.

Violence against staff members, meanwhile, also is rising. In 2002, 26 staffers were assaulted by wards, via attacks and the throwing of urine or feces. The next year, that number doubled.

Though the volatility at Stark is alarming, violence appears to be the norm throughout the CYA. One outside consultant called its level of assaults unprecedented in juvenile corrections nationwide, and responsible for an intense climate of fear.

Those within its walls confirm that view. To survive in the youth authority, says one fidgety, 18-year-old car thief at the Fred C. Nelles Youth Correctional Facility in Whittier, you'd "better be on your tippy-toes."

Inmates say the system is dominated by a fighting culture that puts a premium on aggressiveness and makes constant low-level conflict a fact of life. Young men with a reputation for being tough or neutral are left alone. Those viewed as weak or annoying are targeted.

And today's prey can quickly become tomorrow's predator.


Prey to Predator

Benjamin, a tall young man with a severe overbite and a sad, distant manner, personifies that truth. A convicted sex offender from Los Angeles, Benjamin, 19, asked that his last name be kept private, fearing gang retaliation.

Like many inmates, Benjamin glumly describes fighting as a necessary precaution in prison. He was transferred to Nelles from another facility after three enemies ambushed him -- one jumping him from behind, the others kicking him in the stomach.

"I fell down. My braces were cutting into my gums," he recalled. "The guards in the tower saw it but by the time they got there, I was already messed up."

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