Incarcerated Youth Win Victory on the Road to Closure

On January 11, 2012, in an unprecedented action, a group of youth I've been working with at Ventura youth prison posted an online petition calling for the superintendent to fix decrepit and disgusting conditions, such as overflowing toilets, filthy showers, and floors stained with chemical agents sprayed at them. The petition also exposed physical assaults by guards and revealed that youth desperate to escape California’s youth prisons are committing new crimes inside in order to be transferred to adult prison.

In just a few weeks, their petition garnered over 10,000 signatures. On February 16, 2011, the youth won. The superintendent for the prison sent a memo to all staff and youth explaining that an evaluation of living units validated the youths’ concerns and work orders were submitted for needed repairs.

These brave youth risked retaliation to ask for public support because life inside California’s Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) is unbearable. Public records reveal guards use pepper spray up to 4 or 5 times in a single incident on youth who present no danger and have mental health designations. On average there are five incidents every day involving guards using pepper spray. Each day, two youth are placed into solitary confinement. And every other day, a youth tries to kill or harm themselves by cutting their wrists, swallowing batteries, or hanging themselves with bedsheets.

A youth who attempted suicide four times in two weeks confided to me that after each attempt, guards roughed him up, stripped him naked and dragged him into a bare cell - the same cell used for discipline. He was left there alone for 21 hours a day. When he stopped eating, staff told him he must eat but never asked what was wrong. When he started hallucinating and wanted to speak to a psychiatrist, he was told the psychiatrist was “busy.”

It’s hard to imagine solitary confinement unless you’ve experienced it. Lino Silva, the author of the petition, describes it like this:

You feel trapped. Life becomes distorted. You shower, eat, sleep, and defecate in the same tiny room. In the same small sink, you ‘shower,’ quench your thirst, wash your hands after using the toilet, and warm your cold dinner in a bag. I developed techniques to survive. I keep a piece of humanity inside myself that can’t be taken away by the guards. But for others, it breaks them, makes them either violent or suicidal. There’s no second chance here. We are being institutionalized so that we can’t function anywhere other than adult prison.

After billions of dollars and countless court-ordered reforms, DJJ is still a living nightmare. A report in January found no decrease in fear or violence since reforms ordered seven years ago. And locking youth up in a small concrete room for 21 hours a day is still not considered solitary confinement. That’s why youth and their families believe that these failed warehouses of torture must close.

We cannot continue to spend $200,000 per year, per youth so that our children can become suicidal, lose their humanity, and spend the rest of their lives recovering from severe trauma. For the second time, Governor Brown proposed closing these trauma factories in favor of local rehabilitation centers. Please tell Governor Brown not to back down again.