Youth Authority's Extreme Makeover

Connie Brewer spent Monday, May 16 in Sacramento trying to deliver 3,500 postcards from all over California to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. The postcards demanded that all eight large youth prison facilities run by the California Youth Authority be shut down. The idea was to match each card with one of the 3,216 wards in CYA custody. May 16 was, not coincidentally, the same day the troubled agency unveiled a court-mandated plan to transform its internal philosophy from a punitive correctional, to an evidence-based rehabilitative, program.

Surrounded by TV cameras, Brewer and 15 other loud parents, relatives, youth activists and members of Books Not Bars, an Oakland-based youth advocacy group, parked themselves outside the governor's office. They wore white on black T-shirts proclaiming "Close CYA Prisons, Open Youth Opportunities" and sang, "We are closing the youth prisons, we shall not be moved!"

They wanted, and got, a June 1 meeting with Schwarzenegger about shuttering CYA's eight facilities that hold between 365 and over 1,000 youths each.

Brewer knows all about the CYA's problems. She lost her 24-year-old son Dyron Brewer on Sept. 5, 2004. "I was told they found him dead in his cell," said Brewer, an Oakland resident now active with Books Not Bars. "They did an investigation and they said he died of natural causes. That's all they said. The autopsy said his heart and liver were normal. He went to sleep and did not wake up." Tearing up, she added, "I really want to know what really happened to my child. You don't just go to sleep, then when they brought his body out he had a black eye." (According to the CYA, the San Joaquin Sheriff's Office and an outside coroner's final report, Dyron Brewer died of "sudden cardiac arrest.")

To call the CYA troubled might be an understatement. In addition to Dyron, three other youths died last year in CYA custody--two were confirmed suicides. There is the now infamous video of CYA staffers beating two wards senseless as other guards looked on that was splashed over the network news in April 2004. That's not to mention a relentless series of official reports, lawsuits and news stories detailing rampant violence, abuse, retaliation and educational, medical and mental healthcare failures. To top it all off, the CYA's recidivism rate varies from 50 to 90 percent, depending on how CYA statistics are read, one of the worst in the nation.

A Whole New CYA?

The May 16 announcement is a direct result of a huge lawsuit covering all aspects of CYA operations filed in December 2003 by the San Quentin-based Prison Law Office, and settled in January 2004. As part of the settlement the CYA agreed to a set of reform deadlines; Monday marked the unveiling of a series of reforms the agency must implement starting in November.

"Basically the overarching philosophy here is we are transforming how the CYA is working with youth offenders," said CYA information officer Sarah Ludeman. "We are replacing a correctional focus on punishment with one that is anchored to group therapy, instilling self discipline in youth and preparing them to be productive members of society." Ludeman also stressed staff retraining and "more family involvement and more support from the community."

The "Programmatic Description of the Rehabilitative Model for the CYA" rededicates the agency to its statutory mission of rehabilitation that was lost to tough-on-crime politicians and the powerful prison guards union. The plan lays out commitments to decrease living unit sizes from 75 wards to 35 or 40 in each, "increased staff to ward ratios, comprehensive assessments and reassessments ... individualized behavioral contracts" and the creation of a "normative culture" involving "positive peer culture," i.e. positive feedback and effective case management.

What the plan does not include, to the dismay of advocates, is any speedy promise to shut down the large CYA institutions or replace prison guards with non-correctional staff. "We have to work with the existing structures," said Ludeman, who acknowledged the very design of such large institutions fosters the problems CYA has been sued for. "We can't change it overnight. We don't have the money right off. But in the interim the state is committed to improving conditions." No facility shutdowns will occur until 2008-09.

Advocates Are Underwhelmed

"We recognize that California is a national disgrace. We want California to be a national model," said Jakada Imani, field director of Books Not Bars, who perhaps best expressed the current sense of cautious optimism among parents and activists: "This is a good road map, but we need an extreme makeover."

"This is almost further than we ever thought we could get, but it's nowhere near enough," said Lenore Anderson, director of Books Not Bars, back at the group's Oakland office at the end of the day.

While pleased by the stated change in philosophy, Anderson argues, "The only way to achieve this [new] vision is to close down the facilities and get rid of the guards. Anything else is a set-up for failure." The very design of the huge warehouse-like facilities built in past decades fosters "isolation, fear and abuse" said Anderson. Huge dorm rooms and prison-like architecture cannot be transformed by coats of paint, new programs or altered sleeping arrangements.

As Imani put it succinctly, you can't transform a "dungeon into a master bedroom."

Then there is the issue of cash. While the governor has added some $19 million for CYA reforms, Anderson called that "almost a drop in the bucket" of the CYA's $400 million budget. The State Legislative Analyst's office says that renovating current facilities instead of shutting them will cost $270 million. Why not, ask youth advocates, simply save that money and spend it on finding and adapting other state properties to create small rehabilitation centers as Missouri and other states have done?

Where Anderson is restrained in her critique of the CYA plan, attorney David Steinhart, a juvenile justice expert who sat on two Governor's Advisory Groups on CYA and juvenile justice reform, is scathing. "It is a rambling statement of purpose that represents nothing new. It is the minimum that we expected for the purposes of complying with the [Prison Law Office] consent decree," said the clearly annoyed attorney. "It buys time until we get some real results."

He too, notes the failure to address, "closing institutions that were inappropriate for youth like Chad [N.A. Chaderjian in Stockton] or Preston [in Ione]." The plan does not address how to fund, or where new institutions would be built, or how big they would be. "There is a lot of talk about normative culture, but I don't see firm commitments to terminate the use of prison teachers, no hard plans to get rid of pepper spray, physical restraints or lockdown," said Steinhart. "That is how you begin to rid of [this] prison culture."

A Small Step Forward

Despite the caveats, the CYA plan is a step forward. At worst it "buys time," at best it is a blueprint for desperately needed real reforms. So far, 10 states have already, or are in the process of, closing down their youth prisons, acknowledging the way to rehabilitate youth is in small group home settings, close to their families. Massachusetts started the process in the 1970s, then Missouri got into the act as a national model. If California really engages in the process, it could be the boulder that pushes an avalanche of reform down the mountain. Now wouldn't that be odd for progressives to have to spend some of their time being grateful, in part, to a Republican governor?

But it is not just the Governator who has done this. It was a perfect storm of disasters, scandals, lawsuits and--possibly most important of all--newly active parents and relatives getting together and getting active often for the first time. They put a human face on youth wards oft derided as worthless gangbangers beyond help. The parents made it clear that every kid is someone's child, and every child deserve a chance.

Connie Brewer joined Books Not Bars as one of the group's 280 or so parent organizers who are scattered about the state. She wanted to find out what happened to her son, and prevent other parents from having to go through the same grief. "I want to see them close down the CYA and open up rehabilitation centers so [the youth] can get a job and so they don't have to go back. ... That is why I am on a roller coaster trying to get a smooth ride."

Hopefully, one day she can get off the roller coaster.

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