Behind the Wall

Article excerpt

FEW Californians, including those with children currently incarcerated in the state juvenile-penal system - the California Youth Authority (CYA) - seem to understand what is happening behind the walls of these institutions. CYA staffers say most people assume that whatever happens to California's troubled youth is beneficial for the youths and for their eventual return to society. A look inside the CYA dispels that assumption.

The CYA houses its juvenile wards in prison-like facilities. To maintain their social rank, wards routinely assault their peers. They punch, kick, hit, and even stab one another, often preying in packs upon younger and smaller children. CYA wards also suffer sexual abuse, by their peers and sometimes by CYA staff.

The institutions which confine these youthful offenders remind them constantly of their "criminality." They are surrounded by razor wire, tall fences, and spotlighted guard towers. Their adult guardians dress paramilitary-style, wearing military fatigues, heavy black boots, and puncture-proof vests. They carry Mace and club-like steel flashlights.

Wards living in these conditions choose one of two paths. Those who yield to the oppression are generally paroled within two to three years and return to the streets. Others "act out" against the system, as CYA officials say. When wards act out - by fighting, destroying property, assaulting a guard - they are detained for up to three months in a solitary-confinement cell.

Solitary cells are made of concrete and steel and measure approximately 6 feet wide by 9 feet long by 16 feet high. There is a steel sink, steel toilet, steel bunk, and a steel door. At the lower portion of the door is a steel flap, through which meals are served twice a day. A camera in a corner of the high ceiling monitors every movement for 23 hours each day. During the 24th hour, the ward leaves the cell to exercise and shower. Because of the cold temperatures inside the cells, CYA guards refer to time in solitary as "keeping them on ice."

Solitary confinement may temporarily solve a problem, but in the long run, the effects on punished wards can be devastating. They endure months of sensory deprivation and are then released, allegedly cured. Unfortunately, the punished wards tend to be even more psychopathic and hateful than before. Most act out again, and are then "graduated" to the CYA's highest-level facility - the Preston School for Boys in Ione - or are transferred directly to a state prison. …