Another Young Person Dies Behind Bars

On the morning of Sept. 1, the Youth Justice Coalition got a call from one of our members behind bars. He told us another young man had died in California's youth prisons.

He said the youth had died the night before at Stockton's N.A. Chaderjian Youth Correctional Facility, or "Chad." This was the fifth death inside a California state juvenile detention facility during the past 18 months.

We are a Los Angeles-based organization led by youths who have experienced lock-up or whose parents have been incarcerated. A crew of people was here when the call came in. Maritza, 13, and Destinie, 14, faxed out a statewide press advisory. We called on the media to investigate the death and push the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) Secretary Roderick Hickman to account for the conditions in the state's juvenile prisons.

The rest of us started calling various people within the CDCR to get their account of what happened. Within 30 minutes, Nancy Lungren, the CDCR communications director, called us back. This is what she had to say:

"We can confirm that on August 31, 18-year-old Joseph Daniel Maldonando, born 10/02/86, a resident of Sacramento County, died within Chadjerian due to suicide. He was pronounced dead at 19:55 hours. He had a lot of behavior problems. He was causing a lot of conflict between Northerners and Crips. He came to Preston in April 2004 for auto theft. From the start, he had behavioral problems, including instigating gang-related violence. In March of 2005, he was transferred to Chad, and was placed in Pajaro Hall, a dorm with single rooms. The program is intended to deal with youth with behavioral issues."

While we were on the phone with the CDCR, Geovanni Rodriguez, 18, began to write: "A system of corruption, of greed and brutality, where death is no longer a matter of chance, but of eventuality. A place where our brothers are caged and abused -- subjected to curses and beatings, then left to die, alone, but screaming…"

In March of 2005, Lungren and then-California Youth Authority (CYA) Director Walter Allen told the Youth Justice Coalition that they were no longer using 23-hour lockdown -- a practice that research has shown exacerbates mental health problems, especially in youths. We asked Lungren whether Joseph Maldonado was on lockdown at the time of his death. This was her reply:

"Youth are in their rooms 21 hours a day. We try to get them out of their rooms for three hours a day. They get three meals a day, relationship with staff, and counseling in their room. We tried to have him in the general population, but he was still causing a lot of conflicts, and had disciplinary problems. Since July, Pajaro Hall, and also Owens and San Joaquin, have been on full or modified lockdown due to violence between Northerners and Crips."

Geovanni Rodriguez kept writing: "Crying out for someone to hear them. They're looking for a kind face. They want to see their mother again. The want to see our mother again. These are our brothers and our sisters. How can we let this happen to our kin?"

We asked Lungren about the details of Joseph's death:

"At 6:30 p.m., the counselors noticed that he put paper over his window to block the view. Wards often cover their windows in order to attack officers -- when you open the room, they assault you -- so staff is trained to call security when the windows are covered…When security entered the room they found sheets tied to the upper bunk and he was sitting on the lower bunk, hung with the sheets around his neck. Security issued a Code Four for a full emergency response. The medical team tried to do everything they could to save him. We are so proud of everything our staff did. They were heroic."

Numerous reports have confirmed that CYA facilities fail to provide youths with basic educational, mental health and drug treatment programs that are mandated by law. Lungren referred to the staff as "counselors" when in fact they are trained as prison guards, wear a guard's uniform and are represented by the guards' union. They have not been trained as social workers or youth counselors. Days before Joseph's death, guards who had been caught on video beating two young people at Chad got their jobs back through a state Personnel Board hearing.

Chad is considered by many to be the worst of the worst among California's shameful juvenile prisons. We asked Lungren whether Joseph Maldonado's death was proof of the immediate need to close Chad: "We can't close Chad just like that. Bernie Warner [the new director of the Department of Juvenile Justice within the CDC] is analyzing each institution. We know that Chad is a building with a lot of problems. It's not conducive to a lot of programming. But we can't just close a facility. Where will we move the wards? That will affect crowding at other facilities. What will happen to the staff? That impacts people's jobs. We have to follow union rules. They have their issues connected to that [closing institutions]."

Dyron Brewer, 24. Deon Whitfield, 17. Durrell Feaster, 18. Roberto Lombana, 18. Joseph Daniel Maldonado, 18. All five died inside California's juvenile prisons in the past year and a half.

California's youth prison system is considered by many to be the most brutal in the nation. The governor's response has been to rename the California Department of Corrections the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, and the California Youth Authority the Division of Juvenile Justice. But the huge, inhumane facilities -- and the practice of subjecting psychologically vulnerable youth to lockdown -- remain.

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