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Kids in the hole.

Jovan, sixteen, lives with his mother and older brother in a all Long Beach, California, bungalow. By middle class standards, it is a modest, if tidy, dwelling. But it's positively palatial compared to his previous digs. Jovan spent four months in Los Angeles's Men's Central Jail--"CJ"--for armed robbery. It was his first offense, and he was not the instigator of the crime. Historically, this would have landed him in juvenile hall. Instead, he was sent to CJ, where jailers locked him in his cell for all but thirty minutes a day.

"It's disgusting in there," says Jovan, whose last name is being withheld because of his age. "And it smells all nasty. They have us on twenty-three-and-a-half-hour lockdown, and sometimes if something happens in the jail, they'll just keep us on lockdown the whole day. It's just messed up."

Jovan and others like him are caught between a jail system that sees them as kids and a political system that wants them treated as adults. Under California's Proposition 21, anyone over the age of fourteen who is accused of a violent crime must be tried as an adult and is "unfit" to be tried as a juvenile. At the discretion of the presiding judge, a child being tried as an adult--an "unfit" as they are called may be sent to an adult jail. And upon the recommendation of the county probation department, any kid in juvenile hall--regardless of age--can be remanded to adult jail.

And they are. At any given time, around forty kids are housed in CJ. A hundred other "unfits" in juvenile hall are right on the brink. Once they are sent there, state and federal law says they must be kept out of sight and sound of the adult prisoners. But there are no separate facilities for children. So in the name of safety, children are often being placed in some of the harshest conditions in the state--what amounts to solitary confinement.

Javier Stauring, a chaplain with the Los Angeles archdiocese, says the conditions are the worst he's ever seen. "I've been to maybe ten different state prisons up and down the state of California, and the way that they house the juveniles in the county jail here in L.A. is worse than any adult or juvenile institution in the state by far," he says. "I have been inside the [isolation ward] in Pelican Bay, and I have visited with men who have been in there for fifteen years straight, and I'm telling you, what they are doing at the county jail here in L.A. is worse than what we're doing in Pelican Bay."

Pelican Bay, he explains, is an inhumane place. In fact, it was cited by Amnesty International for the cruel conditions of its isolation unit. (A 1995 federal ruling said the unit's conditions "may well hover on the edge of what is humanly tolerable for those with normal resilience.") But it is a clean and shiny, state-of-the-art inhumane place. Not so the Los Angeles county jail. "I've seen standing water on the floors of cells, the place smells like mold and mildew," Stauring says. "The kids can never really get away from the light. They have a hard time getting clean clothes and underwear. And they hardly ever get out of their cells, and when they do, it's in a concrete pen--that's what they call 'large-muscle exercise'--walking around a concrete pen."

It doesn't take much imagination to see the psychological toll these conditions exact. "The effects of this type of confinement are profound and they are disabling," says Craig Haney, a University of California at Santa Cruz psychology professor. "People who are held in solitary confinement lose their ability to test social reality, and for even the strongest of people this is a true test of one's ability to maintain sanity."

For children, the stress is even greater. "The political stereotype is that a fourteen- or sixteen-year-old who commits an adult crime must be as sophisticated as an adult when paradoxically these kids are most often younger than their age emotionally," says Haney. "Regardless of what they have done, they are in an uncertain, unformed state of social identity. These are kids who are the least appropriate to place in solitary confinement. Not only are you putting them in a situation where they have nothing to rely on but their own, underdeveloped internal mechanisms, but you are making it impossible for them to develop a healthy functioning adult social identity. You're basically taking someone who's in the process of finding out who they are and twisting their psyche in a way that will make it very, very difficult for them to ever recover."

"Unfortunately, what we're seeing in Los Angeles is not that unusual," says Marc Schindler, staff attorney at the Youth Law Center in Washington, D.C. "The conditions sound particularly harsh there, but with so many states in the last ten years having changed their laws to allow more young people to be sent to the adult system, we're seeing a significantly increased number of kids sent to adult jails and prisons across the country. Some of the conditions in Los Angeles we've seen in other places."

In Baltimore, Human Rights Watch found that children housed in adult jails faced the same conditions as those described in Los Angeles. As a result, juvenile offenders "have little choice but to enter protective custody, which is usually a separate, secure housing unit in which they spend a great deal of time in isolation--a setting that is especially conducive to suicidal behavior," Human Rights Watch noted in a report. "In fact, children held in jails are up to eight times more likely to commit suicide than those held in juvenile detention centers" [emphasis added].

In Louisiana, the Tallulah correctional facility was opened in 1994 as a boot camp, but 240 isolation cells were quickly added to deal with kids who have trouble in the general population--often mentally ill or disabled children whose conditions go untreated in jail. The conditions were among the worst for juvenile inmates ever documented. "When we sued Tallulah in 1998," says David Utter, director of the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana, "they were locking kids in their small, dirty, vermin-infested cells for up to twenty-three hours a day--letting the kids out only to shower. This isolation does tremendous psychological harm to kids."

In Florida, the state's five-year "Juvenile Transfer to Criminal Court Study" found that nearly 50 percent of juvenile offenders transferred to the adult criminal justice system re-offend upon release after they turn eighteen, compared to 37 percent of the juvenile offenders released from juvenile delinquency programs.

Sitting in the playground area of a fast food restaurant in Paramount, California, Noemi (whose last name has also been withheld) looks more suited to the slides and ball pits than to the inner recesses of an adult jail. Her diminutive frame is hardly threatening, and with thin arms and tiny hands, she does not match the stereotype of the powerful and sophisticated teenage "predator."

In July 2001, her sister tried to rob a woman on a sidewalk while brandishing a screwdriver and a can of pepper spray. Noemi was in the car but was collared with her sister and convicted of armed robbery--a felony. She was sixteen. The prosecutor offered her a deal: Take three-to-five years in the California Youth Authority or one year in Twin Towers county jail and a "strike": one adult felony conviction.

"I took the year in Towers," she says, uncomfortable with the memory. She did so to be closer to her two-year-old son. Twin Towers jail is accessible via public transportation, while the closest women's prison was an hour's drive in a car her mother didn't have. The decision made sense at the time. "I didn't know they were going to lock me in a room alone. All I was told by the public defender was, 'From here, you're going to adult jail. Good luck.'"

Like Jovan, it was her first offense. Like Jovan, she was locked in administrative segregation. And like Jovan, she was housed next to hardened criminals.

Captain John Franklin, who supervises the Twin Towers jail, told the Los Angeles Times that housing girls like Noemi in solitary confinement "puts us in a bind, because we have to give her constant security .... We have to make sure she is safe, and this is the safest place."

Noemi didn't feel safe. "They say they housed me there to keep me away from the adults, but they would leave my slot open," she says. "People could see and talk to me. One time this lady reached in and touched me. People would walk in my showers. One of them asked me if I was a lesbian and I was like, oh my God, what's she going to do?"

And then there were the daily indignities: 24/7 lighting, little-to-no schooling, cold food. Noemi slipped into a depression so deep that, when lawyers managed a transfer to juvenile hall for her, "I didn't even want to leave my room," she says.

Noemi's mother had a difficult time getting in to see her. "My mom would come and they'd say, 'Well, you can't see her because she's in solitary confinement,' and she'd say, 'No, she's just housed there,' and they'd say, 'No ma'am, no one is just housed there, we're pretty sure she did something, you can't see her,' "says Noemi. When her mom did finally get in, she cried at the sight of her daughter, gaunt from prison food and yellow from the lack of sunshine, Noemi says.

"A lot of the kids say that they've asked their moms not to come visit because they have to wait sometimes three to four hours for a twenty-minute visit, over the phone, through glass," says Stauring. "Over and over, I've heard the story where the mom waited a couple of hours and didn't get in before the cutoff time so she had to come back at 5:00 p.m"--the beginning of the day's second visitation period--"and start back over."

Stauring has little patience for this kind of treatment. "Not only are the kids being housed in these terrible conditions with roaches and rats and leaky pipes," says Stauring, voice rising, "not only are they being treated worse than dogs in a kennel, but the families are being punished, as well. It's like the kids aren't seen as human beings, and neither are the families. There's simply no consideration of what they have to go through to visit."

Noemi says that when she finally left Twin Towers, she had anxiety attacks and shunned other people. "When it was time to go back to Juvie, they woke me up and I was like, I don't want to go," she says. "When we went outside, my nose started bleeding, and I got all dizzy. I had a little rosary, and they wouldn't let me take it, so I had to rip the cross off and clutch it so I could feel safe. I was scared after being in there. It's kind of sad how they do you, you know?"

Now back home in Paramount, Noemi still has problems. "I thought I. was going to leave that in the past and just forget about it," she says. "But it was hard. I didn't want to show my mom because she's like, so sentimental, so I didn't want to tell her I can't take this, I'm not used to it. I just wanted to go lock myself in the closet, and sometimes I still do. I'll close myself in the bathroom and just sing the songs that I used to sing in there to try to relax."

Bill Crout, deputy director of the California Board of Corrections, says his hands are tied. "The bottom line is that juveniles are often kept in administrative segregation in order to keep them away from adults to ensure that the jail is in compliance with the statute," he says. "I don't think anyone thinks that it's a good idea, but it's the best thing that the sheriffs can do with the resources they have."

Captain Richard Adams of the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department says that Central Jail's juvenile module is "no different than the other single-man modules on that floor where we have adults who are being housed." He insists that the juvenile module is "clean and secure, and [juvenile inmates] are getting an education and exercise." He stresses that he would like to house juveniles in more open conditions but can't "because so many of the juveniles pose problems because of their fights." As such, they "pose even a higher security risk than many of the adult inmates," he says.

The risk of having a "predator" who would hurt a minor in juvenile hall is too high, says Captain Adams. By putting the most dangerous juveniles in jail, "we have a better chance of ensuring that everyone is safe, and that's our common goal, to make sure that folks in our custody are not injured and do not injure anyone else," he says.

This idea grates on Jovan. "This was my first crime, and they had us down there with, like, real criminals," says Jovan. "Some of these guys had fifteen years, twenty years, and they were in the hole for doing something bad up in the regular cell blocks."

Captain Adams denies that juveniles are ever housed with adults, saying that any spillover is handled by clearing a cell block adjacent to the juvenile module. This doesn't jibe with Jovan's account. He says he and the few other juveniles on the block were fearing for their safety. "We're talking about big, like, 300-pound guys who kill people, and we're a bunch of fifteen and sixteen year olds. There's no way we should have been in there, regardless of what the reason was."

Not being able to fill up his day was one of the hardest things for Jovan. "It gets crazy in there," he says.

Opportunities for exercise were scant. "If you want to work out, you have to do your own push-ups and things like that," says Jovan. "We can't play basketball or none of that, which the adults can do." Once a week, Jovan and the other kids were sent to the roof yard for exercise. "We got put in a little cage with a [chin-up] bar and a phone, and that's it," he says.

Asked what would have happened if he had to stay in jail longer, Jovan says, "I probably would have lost my mind."

Captain Adams has heard it before but says there is little he can do about it. "A judge is saying that these juveniles are unfit to be housed with other inmates, so they must be placed in sheriff's custody because of the violent crimes they participated in. So they come in here, and people say, 'Sheriff, this is horrible, you have people in these cells where they are restricted and they can't play or participate in group sports or classes, so what are you going to do?' Well, the sheriffs are providing three meals, bedding, a safe, secure environment, education, and exercise, and people are saying the sheriffs have a problem? I think the system has a problem."

Part of that systemic problem is what happens after the kids are released. Some day these kids are going to get out," says Carole Shauffer, executive director of the Youth Law Center. "So we need to be asking, is this the right way to treat them? We need to think about what they are going to be like when they go home." It's a question that speaks to the heart of the law-and-order policies that sent these kids to adult jail in the first place. "If the time they spend in isolation is going to make them angrier and more violent people, that doesn't change the fact that there are people who will still have to deal with them," says Shauffer.

"It's an enormous problem," concurs Haney. "We're releasing people directly from isolation into the free world with almost no transitional programming of any kind. The only adaptations that a person in isolation can make are, in the long term, dysfunctional, and they almost invariably result in that person having further contact with the criminal justice system."

Solitary confinement has no place whatsoever in any system that is designed to rehabilitate people, says Haney. "Rehabilitation and solitary confinement are incompatible concepts psychologically, in my opinion."

You don't need a Ph.D. in psychology to figure this out, though. Jovan sees it on the streets of Long Beach, a veritable petri dish for the anger injected in jail. "People come out and do crazy things, but I don't blame them if they just come out doing wrong," he says. "When you're in there, they treat you like shit. You come out, you still got the mentality, you're angry, it's not like you're going to forget what it was like. It's not going to go down like that."

Matt Olson is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.
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Title Annotation:juvenile offenders
Author:Olson, Matt
Publication:The Progressive
Geographic Code:1U9CA
Date:Aug 1, 2003
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