Group to protest outside Camarillo youth detention facility

A civil-rights group will stage a protest Sunday in front of the Ventura Youth Correctional Facility in Camarillo, alleging the facility and others like it are abusing their juvenile wards.

"We need to call attention to these abuses," Abel Habtegeorgis, a spokesman for the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in Oakland, said this week.

Habtegeorgis said he hopes 75 to 100 protesters will show up Sunday. Protesters are scheduled to meet at 10 a.m. in the USA Gas parking lot in the 4400 block of Central Avenue in Camarillo. From there, they will be taken to the front of the correctional facility, where a protest is planned until 1 p.m.

Organizers hope families of those held at the facility will turn out Sunday, Habtegeorgis said.

His group says the state's Division of Juvenile Justice has failed in its mission to rehabilitate troubled youths and instead operates a system that "promotes violence and re-creates trauma."

"Locking up a kid in an isolated cell fails to give them the opportunity to develop into healthier adults," said Jakada Imani of the Ella Baker Center.

An audit completed this year found young people were being held in solitary confinement. In one case, a youth offender had only an hour outside his cell over a 10-day period at the Camarillo facility.

The independent auditor also found a female ward on suicide watch was denied a meal for not giving her rosary to staff members.

Bill Sessa, a spokesman for the California Department of Corrections, said the types of incidents the group cites are not occurring at the center today.

"Most of their statistics are exaggerated and taken so far out of context that they defy reality," he said, referring in part to allegations by the group that abuses in California's youth prison system have led to numerous suicide attempts by inmates during the past 17 months.

While the Camarillo facility did have problems with some inmates, Sessa said it was some time ago and the problems were isolated to about a dozen offenders, all of whom were violent and a danger to themselves and others.

California has had above-average incarceration rates for youths when compared with other states. It also has been criticized for inmate abuses, including staff-on-ward beatings, extended lockdowns and wards attending classes while confined in a cage.

Sessa said the Division of Juvenile Justice, which runs the Camarillo facility and others across the state, is under a court order to have regular evaluations and audits.

"We have made numerous changes in how we run our facilities," he said.

As to allegations that some wards are being held in isolation for extended periods, Sessa said they are required "to have an hour a day out of their rooms," adding "there was a time when a small group of youths with extremely violent behavior" were not getting the hour.

"We have corrected the staffing problem that created that situation and we have documented that all the youths are getting out of their rooms" for the required time, he said.