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,
"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
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
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,"
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. …