Unlocking the System

Four young people died in California’s youth prisons last year, including Durrell Feaster, 18, and Deon Whitfield, 17, both of whom committed suicide by hanging themselves with bedsheets. In April of 2004, the release of a “Rodney-King-style” security video that showed prison staff restraining and viciously beating youth — punching one 28 times in the face — and later spraying them with chemicals, made national news. Since then, young men and women have also filed suit for sexual assault by prison staff.

To the young people locked up in the CYA and their families on the outside, these stories are nothing new. Families and communities impacted by the juvenile justice system have long been organizing to expose these systemic abuses. Groups such as Books Not Bars and the youth-led Let’s Get Free of Oakland, Calif. held candlelight vigils for Durrell and Deon, hosted community forums and were involved in the making of a documentary film called System Failure: Violence, Abuse and Neglect in the California Youth Authority.

Recently, such ongoing efforts appear to have made some actual headway. At the end of last month, Gov. Schwarzenegger’s California Youth Authority chief announced a plan to transform the CYA into an institution that rehabilitates, rather than merely punishes, youth.

The story behind this new plan began in 2003, when the Prison Law Office filed suit on behalf of California’s taxpayers, on the grounds that the CYA was failing its legal mandate to provide rehabilitation for young people in its custody. The court commissioned an independent group of investigators who found that prison staff regularly initiate fights between young people, spray them with chemical weapons and high-pressure hoses, and lock them up in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day – often for months at a time. The state settled last fall, requiring the CYA to report a plan for reform by the end of last month.

If the plan is executed, it will mean keeping young people near their homes, including families in the treatment and rehabilitation process, providing a truly rehabilitative environment, and staffing the programs with trained specialists. Such models have worked in other states—Missouri, which committed to this course some 20 years ago, is now seen by many as a national model. According to the plan, the CYA has until Nov. 30, 2005, to develop a detailed plan for implementation.

Earlier this year California State Senate Majority Leader Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles) also announced her intention to introduce a bill with similar aims. The bill she hopes to pass would call for the immediate closure of the most dysfunctional facilities and place all girls and young women in county programs. The bill would also call for the eventual redesign of the rest of the CYA’s prisons to become small-scale, rehabilitative programs housing only young people’s whose families and communities are nearby.

While encouraged by these recent developments, many youth of color, families and allies involved in the movement are wondering: Is this just an attempt to end the controversy? Or have the decision-makers finally gotten the message?

A Broader Vision

David Kahn, youth program director at Let’s Get Free, says there are several places where the plan should push farther, such as developing a strong community oversight process to ensure that the CYA adheres to its commitment. “There’s also no mention of closing the facilities and opening new ones,” Kahn adds. “In order to provide a safe and supportive environment that is close to home, those that exist now won’t work.”

Let’s Get Free also hopes to intervene on a larger, systematic level. The group wants to see an end to what they see as racist sentencing practices, which they believe result in the over-representation of youth of color in places like CYA. They also hope to monitor the prison guard lobby. Some of the loudest and most colorful opposition to the CYA’s new plan so far have come out of from this lobby – the Los Angeles Times recently quoted a former prison officer asking, “Who wrote this plan, Walt Disney?” The California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA), the state’s prison guard union, is one of the highest contributors to legislators across the political spectrum. Anti-prison and prison reform activists have long cited this lobby as a driving force behind what they call “the punishment industry,” by fostering a tough-on-crime climate that ensures their jobs won’t be taken away.

Scyentiffick Herbert, a youth organizer for Let’s Get Free, says he is dissatisfied with any plan that involves locking young people up. In the long term, Herbert believes that youth of color need communities and educational practices that affirm and nurture their growth by respecting their ideas and self-expression. “So we’re going to fight for our programs and what other organizations like us offer – instead of the CYA,” he says.

As youth program director, Kahn explains, “We think that Let’s Get Free can be a model community that demonstrates the results you get when you respect young people, when they have opportunities to take leadership positions and make decisions. So while the immediate family of people in the Youth Authority are experts on the problems in the system, Let’s Get Free builds our members’ expertise on the solutions.”

In the coming year, the group also plans to investigate and document effective interventions and alternatives to incarceration, and work to build consensus around them, according to Kahn.

Building Communities of Resistance

Another group that recently began partnering with Books Not Bars in its longer-term vision is Asian and Pacific Islander Youth for Advocacy and Leadership (AYPAL). Like Let’s Get Free, AYPAL is also Oakland-based and youth-driven but it also has an annual issue-identification process in which its membership collectively decide on each of their year-long campaigns. Minorum Nok, an AYPAL intern, says the group chose to collaborate with Let’s Get Free and Books Not Bars’ efforts after watching System Failure.

“After the screening, we were all mad — and sad — because all the youth are getting abused and harassed by guards for no reason,” Nok says.

Nok, whose uncle is currently incarcerated in an INS detention center, was also active in AYPAL’s last campaign challenging deportations.

This collaboration between AYPAL and Books Not Bars has powerful potential to transcend organizing practices that haven’t always actively brought together immigrant and U.S.-born communities of color. The hope is to challenge the criminalization of young people in both communities in a way that builds on what the groups have in common.

Claire Tran, youth organizer at AYPAL, says that deportation and the incarceration of CYA youth are both cases where people get separated from their families and communities, and where the punishment does not always fit the crime. And while many of the people who have been deported since 9/11 are in their late 20s, Tran explains that this phenomenon has to do in part with the sentencing people received when they were youth.

The Illegal Immigration and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IRAIRA) of 1996 made people with one-year prison or probation sentences deportable — and it was retroactive. “Because youth of color are punished more harshly for the same crimes as white youth, they [can] receive doubly harsh punishments [after IRAIRA],” Tran says.

Looking forward, Tran says, “There’s a lot of solidarity that’s going to be built between the youths. We definitely have their back and they have our back, and that’s going to make our fight stronger. “

Potential Ripple Effect

While California is the home to one of the nation’s worst juvenile systems, Kahn of Let’s Get Free acknowledges that it has the potential to be a big agenda-setter for the rest of the country.

“A lot of people were convinced that the rehabilitative model would work in Missouri but not California,” he says. “But I don’t think that’s totally accurate. There will be differences but the philosophy can and will work. Once California changes to a therapeutic, rehabilitative model with measurable, positive results, other people in smaller states like Connecticut or Rhode Island can look at us and say, ‘If it works for a state that big, with that level of complexity, then we can make it work, too!’


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