Books Not Bars

Violence, Abuse, and Neglect in the CYA

Winner of the Criminal Justice Award Sponsored by Marcia Brady Tucker Foundation

Juvenile justice systems across the United States are in a dangerous state of disarray. Violence within the system is rampant and abuse of the youth inside by staff is routine. Many states have more juveniles held for property crimes, drug offenses, and public disorder than anything else. Only a quarter of the youth are committed for violent crimes. Please make a donation to support the fight against this abusive system and we'll send you a DVD copy of the film.

System Failure: Violence, Abuse and Neglect in the California Youth Authority offers testimony of the human rights violations asking place in California’s youth prisons. These include:

  • Sexual abuse
  • Beatings
  • Forced medication
  • Systemic mental health and educational neglect

Many youth languish in isolation cells, with little human contact and almost no education. Others are essentially forced to join gangs for protection and subjected to extreme levels of violence.

This film was produced by WITNESS and the Ella Baker Center.

(Part 2, Part 3, Part 4)

DVD Now Available

Order your copy of of the DVD to share with friends and family or donate to a school or library. Available for a sliding scale donation.

Transforming Juvenile Justice in California

California is nursing an expensive addiction to prisons, and it starts with unnecessary lockup of our youth. How have other states and locals kicked the habit? Learning from our Mistakes is not just a film; it is a blueprint for model juvenile justice practice. By Learning from Our Mistakes, California has the opportunity to lead the nation in transforming juvenile justice systems to lift youth up rather than locking them down.

Learning From Our Mistakes is a production of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights.

We'd love to hear what you think of the film.

DVD Now Available
Order your copy of of the DVD to share with friends or donate to a school or library (available for a sliding scale donation). DVD has Spanish subtitle options. 

Host a Screening
Order the DVD, and you’ll receive a free toolkit for sharing the film with your friends, class, or community group. Every person you reach is another step toward better treatment for our youth.

Join Families for Books Not Bars today

Families for Books Not Bars is California's network for families of incarcerated youth. We are parents, grandparents, siblings and relatives whose children are caught in the juvenile justice system. We know all too well that DJJ prisons fail to offer rehabilitation, education, or opportunity to our children. We have had to watch a system that is supposed to guide and help our children, instead abuse and neglect them. We know firsthand that the system not only harms our children, it also traumatizes our families.

Families for Books Not Bars provides:

  • A community and collective voice for families experiencing the horrors of California’s youth prisons;
  • Individual support;
  • Resources and information;
  • Training and opportunities to engage in public education, advocacy, media, legislative outreach and mass mobilizations.   

Across the state, we have more than 1,000 members, and are growing. Families for Books Not Bars breaks the isolation and despair we experience by providing a network for peer support, leadership development, and empowerment. Through Books Not Bars, we gain the skills and opportunities to transform California into a state that invests in all of its young people and communities.

Join Families for Books Not Bars today


California’s notorious Division of Juvenile Justice (sometimes known by its original name, CYA or California Youth Authority) is a hotbed of abuse. DJJ prisons are ineffective, violent, and abusive. They fail to make our communities safer or to help youth get their lives on track. With an 81 percent recidivism rate and a cost of over $200,000 per youth, per year, DJJ is one of the nation's most expensive, yet least effective juvenile justice systems.

Books Not Bars works for justice in our state. We won't allow California to be a state where some kids matter and some kids don't. To make the changes that are crucial for California, Books Not Bars champions effective alternatives to the state’s broken youth prison system by sharing stories from people directly impacted by it, crafting and passing cutting-edge policies, and sharing research to demonstrate a better way forward.

Campaign History

Our campaign to close California’s youth prisons builds on a long history of success. Since the Books Not Bars campaign launched in 2004:

  • The youth prison population has fallen from 4,800 to 922.
  • Our efforts have helped close five of the state's abusive prisons.
  • We built the first-ever statewide network of families with imprisoned children, Families for Books Not Bars, with over 1,000 member families.
  • We championed three bills developed from the experiences of families impacted by prisons, and won in Sacramento! Laws we've passed include the Family Communications Act and the Keeping Families Whole Act.
  • Leaders and editorial boards across the state have endorsed our call for reform.
  • We organized across the state in 2008 to defeat a "tough on crime" initiative, Prop 6.


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California, often a trendsetter, could make history if it approves Gov. Jerry Brown’s bid to close all state-run youth prisons and eliminate its state Division of Juvenile Justice. Much depends, though, on whether the state’s politically influential prison guards, probation officers and...
For Immediate Release: 9/29/2011 Contact: Abel Habtegeorgis Media Relations Manager (510) 428-3939 x232 Without Sentencing Reform, California Will Still Pay Too High A Price for Lock-Ups (Oakland, CA) Beginning October 1st, 2011, California counties will no longer send...
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When I first held my oldest son Jesse 17 years ago in my arms, the light in his eyes was so bright. Growing up in the San Fernando Valley, he loved to write and draw. I was amazed by his creativity and the beauty of his art. On Mother's Day this year, Jesse called to wish me a Happy Mother'...
SACRAMENTO, California.— A fin de que el traspaso de 33,500 reos de las prisiones estatales a las cárceles de los condados tenga éxito a largo plazo, la no partidista Oficina del Analista Legislativo (LAO) recomendó a los legisladores antes de terminar el ciclo fiscal llevar a cabo un foro...