Youth prison tours: Stockton
Over the course of the summer of 2007, Books Not Bars will be touring all of the Division of Juvenile Justice (more commonly known by it's former initials, CYA) youth prisons. In this second post, Jennifer Kim writes of her experience touring the Stockton youth prison complex.
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Freedom is an undervalued privilege. This thought crossed my mind as I looked upon the largeness and remoteness of the youth correctional facilities in Stockton. Behind the barbed wire fences and cold administrative buildings lay empty fields of dry grass surrounding bleak buildings which house our youth...some as young as 13 years old.
We were joined on our tour by two youth who provided us with a rare insight into their lives in the CYA. As I walked with one of the youth named Jorge*, he pointed to something on the ground. He looked around before he spoke very softly, frustrating any would-be eavesdroppers.
"You see that? That's blood. Old blood stains. From fights and stuff. If we fight each other, the guards don't do anything."
"Have you been in a fight?" I asked him.
"Yeah. You have to defend yourself in here. If someone takes your stuff, you have to confront them and fight them. Or else you just become a victim. You have to help yourself because no one else will get your back. If you complain to the guards, they don't care. They don't do nothing," he replied.
We walked by the library at that point and I noticed a small area with legal references. I asked Jorge if he had ever used the legal library.
"Naw. What do I look for there?" he said.
The facility officials in the meantime, were eagerly steering us to a few, I would assume, pre-selected classrooms. They had specialists for those with speech and hearing impairments. Classrooms were staffed with Spanish translators. The youth were enrolled in school programs or were placed in vocational programs. These were the assertions of the administration.
"Are the youth ever prevented from attending classes for whatever reason?" I inquired.
"That rarely happens. We might need to do that for security reasons but it doesn't last for very long," one administrator replied.
The youth I spoke with in the classrooms told a very different story.
"A couple months ago we couldn't go to class for like 2 weeks because there was a fight with like 5 people. But they punished all of us. It happens a lot."
"Yeah, and we couldn't use our school books to do homework or nothing."
"This one kid got written up because he was talking to this new guy in class in Spanish. He was just trying to tell him what the teacher was saying because that new guy only speaks Spanish. But he got in trouble for that."
We didn't stay in any one building for very long. I walked with the other youth that accompanied us on our tour, Pedro*, as the administrators ushered us to the next destination.
"What's been your experience like in here?" I asked him.
"I've been in here for a long time. My parole hearing's coming up so that's good. But I think I have to go through like INS or some deportation thing because I'm not a citizen," he informed me.
"Do you have a lawyer or someone helping you?" I asked him.
"No. I don't know what I'm supposed to do. Do you know what I should do?" he asked. Before we could finish our conversation we were ushered away to the next stop, the substance abuse programming unit.
From what I could tell, substance abuse programming consisted of one workbook, some videos, and the notion that it's up to the individual to make a change. No counselors with a formal medical degree were available. About a dozen youth sat in a row of chairs in front of us. Each of them shared their experiences with the substance abuse program.
"You just have to make the change for yourself. It's just hard when you get out and you go back to the same neighborhood."
"This is my second time doing this."
One youth pulled me aside as I was leaving and shook his head slightly. He whispered, "It doesn't work. The staff are liars. It's all bullshit."
The most emotionally difficult time of the tour came when we visited the lock-up unit. Staff members refer to it as "SMP" or special management programming. A quaint euphemism for a cell unit designed after the adult prisons. We had the opportunity to speak with one youth privately in an office. He entered the room in a bright orange jumpsuit, shackled. We spoke briefly with him about the prevalent violence perpetrated by the guards against the youth in the lock up unit.
Stepping out of the office, the other youth housed in the tiny cells began calling for us, wanting to speak with us. Perhaps they sensed that this was their only opportunity to get help. We spoke with them as long as we could before we had to leave and end the tour. They also spoke of the violence used against them by the guards. The SMP program is a 60-90 day program but many of the youth we spoke with had been there as long as a year or more.
The tour ended in the cool air-conditioned administrative building. We no longer could hear the voices of our youth or smell the stagnant stench of the cells. Least of all, we no longer could see their vacant eyes, full of fear and despair. The mood in the van as we drove away was somber, each of us reflecting and mourning in our own way.
I didn't think it would be so difficult to leave the youth behind. As I work on the Books Not Bars campaign now, my focus has shifted away from the cold walls of the CYA prisons. Instead, the faces of the youth now fill my horizon.
* Names have been changed.
May 24, 2013
Apr 12, 2013
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Dec 20, 2012