Group protests at Ventura Youth Correctional Facility

Nearly 70 people gathered Sunday for a protest rally at the Ventura Youth Correctional Facility in Camarillo.

Chanting "Books not bars! Schools not jails!" those who attended came from across the state, hoping to bring attention to abuses they say are occurring within the facility.

Jaime Barillas said his 18-year-old son has been beaten by guards and had chemicals sprayed in his face. Barillas's eyes welled up with tears as he explained how his son's problems began when Barillas and his wife got divorced and the boy started hanging with a bad crowd.

"He's been here the last eight months," he said.

Barillas and others in attendance believe the state's Division of Juvenile Justice is profiting by keeping youths incarcerated for longer than they should be.

"Every time he gets close to getting out of there something happens" to keep him locked up, Barillas said.

"You don't want them to be rehabilitated!" Joaquin Diazdelon shouted through a megaphone. "You're being exposed today!"

Diazdelon spent two years incarcerated in DJJ institutions in Northern California. He said he initially was sent to one after an attempted burglary in Fresno County. Now he said he works as a youth justice educator and speaks with lawmakers about the system.

Organized by the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in Oakland, the rally was attended by people from all over the state. They read poetry, sang, prayed, did a "unity clap" and spoke through a megaphone, hoping the youth inside would hear and gain hope.

"We're not going to stop until every one of these facilities is shut down!" shouted Laura Brady, a member of the Ella Baker Center's campaign called "Families for Books not Bars."

Lead organizer Owen Li said the protesters were there for three reasons: To end solitary confinement, to stop the violence and to make sure the youths get adequate food.

"Denying food is not an appropriate punishment," he said.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation released an audit this spring revealing that the Ventura Youth Correctional Facility had the worst record of frequently isolating kids for 21 to 24 hours in their rooms.

Li called the Camarillo facility "the most notorious" in the state.

Bill Sessa, a spokesman for the California Department of Corrections, told The Star this week that 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.