Youth Offenders Sue State over Tough Lockup ; A Look Inside California's Tightest Juvenile Facility - Mace, Metal Cages, and All

Article excerpt

The "classrooms" are made up of metal cages about the size of phone booths. Each student sits at a desk inside a pen, peering through mesh and passing assignments through a slot. School lasts just one hour a day.

While this may not be a typical high-school setting, neither are these your typical diploma-seekers. These cramped units provide what passes for schooling for the most violent residents in California's youth corrections system.

To the staff, the closed cages are a revolutionary way to open minds - the only way to do so without someone getting punched or stabbed. But to offenders like David Owens, a 21-year-old decorated with gang tattoos, the cages represent overly oppressive conditions for young people who are still navigating their way into adulthood.

Mr. Owens and 10 other so-called wards in California's juvenile corrections system have filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of all wards at the California Youth Authority, alleging inhumane conditions at this and other facilities.

The charges, ranging from poor educational opportunities to use of unnecessary force by staff, revive age-old questions of punishment versus rehabilitation - questions carrying special significance when they involve youths.

If successful, the legal action could force significant changes in the nation's largest juvenile corrections system - a system that was once considered a national leader but is now, by most accounts, deeply troubled.

"There are all these serious problems, and nothing is being done about them," said Donald Specter, director of the Prison Law Office, the nonprofit firm that filed the suit. "I believe that by winning a lawsuit, we can get a court to order the state to fix the problems."

The lawsuit focuses on day-to-day operations at institutions like Chaderjian Youth Correctional Facility, located on the rural outskirts of Stockton. Some plaintiffs allege excessive use of force. One says he was sprayed twice with Mace and pushed to the ground by staff following a scuffle with another youth. The plaintiffs also claim they were forced to take psychotropic medication, denied proper medical care, and faced violence by other wards.

The classroom cages at "Chad" are also cited in the suit as an example of inhumane conditions. But at "Chad," where gang conflict is the No. 1 problem, the staff says cages make classes work by separating violent and vulnerable youths from each other.

"These are the gang leaders and very assaultive wards that refuse to stop their behavior," said Jack Karver, program administrator at Chaderjian. "They started in an open dorm and graduated to this institution."

Indeed, Chad, which holds youths between the ages of 18 and 25 who committed their crimes while juveniles, fills a high-security niche in California's juvenile-justice system. At this facility, wards who fight are sent to a lockup unit for two to three months at a time, where they attend school in cages and stay in their cells 19 to 23 hours a day.

On a recent afternoon, an agitated but well-spoken Owens meets a reporter in a small office. Sitting with shackles on his legs and hands, he tells his side of the story. He claims to have left gang activity behind, and says he is now in the lockup unit for fighting in self-defense. He complains that he is denied access to educational programs while in the secure housing unit. He is required to get his high-school diploma before he can be paroled, but says that won't happen with the course limitations he faces in lockup. "I should be afforded the opportunity to get that diploma," he says.

'Last-resort' facilities

The California Youth Authority houses more than 7,500 youths in 11 institutions spread throughout the state. It is considered the "last resort" of several punishment options available to judges in California's juvenile courts. …