Youth Prison Tours: Stark
Over the course of this summer, the staff of Books Not Bars will tour all of California’s youth prisons. The first was a tour of the Heman G. Stark, commonly called simply Stark. Books Not Bars Policy Director Sumayyah Waheed writes of her impressions and experiences in the youth prison. Ms. Mock gave the tour and Books Not Bars organizers Joyce Cook and Lourdes Duarte took the tour with Sumayyah.
I stepped into the lobby, grateful for the relief from the sweltering heat. There, we found ourselves staring at an unsmiling guard hidden behind large black sunglasses.
“We’re here for a tour,” I offered. “We’re with Books Not Bars.”
There was some kind of mix-up, so we waited 15 minutes before starting our tour
At first Ms. Mock had us sidestep the metal detector, but the guard at the control booth asked pointedly, “Are we circumventing policy here?”
“No,” Ms. Mock responded immediately. With a resigned sigh, she led us to the metal detector.
There, Joyce’s myriad rings, necklaces and bracelets wouldn’t let her past.
“Did it give you trouble at the airport, too?” I asked. We’d flown into the area that morning.
To my surprise, Joyce grimly replied, “No.”
We waited for a security wand to arrive so Ms. Mock could scan her. In my tours of five different CYA prisons, this was the only time we had to go through a metal detector.
Finally, we passed through to the visiting hall. I’d been to this prison’s grounds on visiting days before, and parents would pack the parking lot. Today, only 5 families sat at scattered tables. More families were outside, talking at picnic tables. I tried to imagine visiting my brother in a youth prison. The drawn face and forlorn eyes, like these boys. Sitting at a plastic bench for a few hours in this concrete room. The boys looked so vulnerable, even though the supposedly “older, harder” boys are at Stark.
One boy walked by with greasy, mussed hair and a startlingly eager smile on his face. “Hi, Ms. Mock!” he said, his cheer incongruous with our bleak surroundings. I found out later from his grandmother that he is bipolar and has suffered severe abuse while in Stark.
The boy’s eerie image burned in my mind as Ms. Mock continued with the tour. A steady stream of data poured from her mouth as we walked the grounds. Ms. Mock catalogued Stark’s educational, substance abuse treatment, and sexual behavior therapy offerings. I knew from their faces that Joyce and Lourdes, like me, were thinking of all the parents who called us complaining that their children had received no education or treatment in years. Staring up a watchtower, I thought of the California Inspector General reports condemning the prolonged solitary confinement, scarce education, and meager therapy at Stark.
Soon, some of the young men themselves confirmed our skepticism. At the prison’s chapel, we met with a group of young men who were in the highest incentive program. Incredulous that Ms. Mock had claimed that Stark didn’t separate the kids by gang, I asked the boys.
“They’re not separated by gang, but by race,” one boy, Eddie*, responded.
“Yeah, it really doesn’t help, and it actually makes problems,” another boy, Javier*, added. “Separating us means people can’t work out their differences.”
Eddie remarked that, because of the racial tension, “I had friends up in Preston [another DJJ site] that I can’t talk to now.”
I asked the boys how long it had been since they’d seen their families. Some were local, but one boy, quiet and hanging back, responded, “Two years.”
Stunned, I asked if that was hard. He shrugged, not meeting my eyes. I took the hint and turned to the next boy, who also had gone two years with no visits.
“Y’know, it’s not worth it for me,” he said. “They gotta come all the way down here, get a room for the night and then get disrespected.”
“From the guards?” I asked.
He nodded. “And y’know, they’re not used to that.”
I asked about the counseling I’d heard Ms. Mock go on about. Matt* shook his head decisively. “They’re workbooks. Here. I’ll show you.”
Bringing me his “counseling” workbook, Matt showed me the blanks he’d filled in. “Your officer just flips through to make sure something’s written there, and marks it off that you got counseling.”
“I was really angry when I first got to YA,” said Javier. “I put—“ he glanced at me apologetically. “Not to disrespect—but I put ‘eff you’ in all the blanks. My officer just looked at it, and marked it off [as complete].”
Joyce and Lourdes were in tears as we left the chapel. When they saw the boys and heard their stories, they couldn’t help but think of their sons’ time in YA.
I had toured Alcatraz and even stood inside one of the cells. I’d felt nothing but morbid fascination. But here, watching these boys in a prison complex seemingly meant for adults, I felt trapped. I wanted to run away. I knew it was important to see Stark for my work, but I just wanted it to be over. It felt like the building emanated radioactive waves. At home that night, I wanted to vomit.
It’s so easy for us on the outside to stay away. To not have to see, smell, breathe those vast complexes of metal and bare concrete. To not have to witness the warm, human bodies languishing inside. This is one rose-tinted window into their world: for the kids.
*Names have been changed.