‘Rooms Infested With Spiders’: California Youth Urge Changes in Conditions at Juvenile Facilities

Juvenile Facilities

Nearly six years after he spent more than a month locked up in a juvenile hall in Los Angeles County, Francisco Martines vividly recalled the conditions in his cell.

Inside the small concrete room at Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall in Downey, Calif., he says the dirty walls were covered with graffiti tags and stained with the residue of spit and excrement. The stench of urine was unmistakable.

At night, Martines had trouble sleeping on a ripped mattress. A thin blanket did little to keep him from shivering from the chill of round-the-clock air conditioning.

The Probation Department officers who staffed the hall were often little help. One time, Martines says, he was confined to his cell for three days along with the rest of the facility so that guards could determine who had stolen a phone from a teacher. Unable to leave his room, he was forced to urinate in his own cell.

The missing cell phone was later found. It was misplaced, not stolen.

The six weeks that Martines spent in the juvenile hall took a toll on the young man, now 23, after he got out.

“I got out the day before Thanksgiving,” Martines, who is an advocate with the Los Angeles-based Youth Justice Coalition, says. “Instead of being with my family the next day at the dinner table, I couldn’t sit there for more than 10 minutes because I wanted to go to my room.”

Solitary room confinement has now been outlawed in both Los Angeles County and across California, but youth like Martines are pushing for the state to take a new look at how it oversees conditions in county-run juvenile camps and halls across the state.

In partnership with the Children’s Defense Fund, the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice and the California Endowment, the Youth Justice Coalition conducted a survey of 77 youth and family members who had direct experience with different county juvenile facilities across the state. They also conducted a focus group of nine youth who experienced incarceration.

As part of those groups, Martines and others answered questions through an Internet poll about their living conditions, how they were treated and what access they had to programs and education at the juvenile facilities.

Nearly 67 percent of those surveyed said that staff members used pepper spray or other weapons against them or young people in county youth facilities.

Among the findings of the survey:

  • Nearly 67 percent of those surveyed said that staff members used pepper spray or other weapons against them or young people in county youth facilities.
  • Three-quarters of survey respondents said that they did not receive assistance with transitioning out of the county’s juvenile detention facilities.
  • Nearly all, or about 90 percent of survey respondents, said that there was not a fair grievance process that included follow-up on complaints.
  • 61 percent of respondents indicated that they did not receive enough healthy, good-quality food to eat while in county youth facilities.
  • About 68 percent of those surveyed reported that they did not feel they were learning, and a majority were kicked out or not allowed to go to school at some point.

Many specific comments from the youth and family members surveyed point to inadequate clothing or poor conditions at the facilities.

“The underwear were stained, the shirts had holes, and the sock were always torn,” wrote one respondent who spent several years in juvenile halls and camps in Los Angeles. “The only time we had decent clothing was when government officials were visiting the facilities.”

“Rooms infested with spiders, resulting in spiders crawling on youth,” wrote another.

Still others pointed to difficulty in receiving medical care: “I was denied medication for a skin condition for weeks; I was often denied Tylenol for menstrual cramps until an hour after I requested it for severe pain.”

Other comments on conditions in California juvenile facilities related to interactions with staff members.

Focus group members noted that staff at juvenile facilities regularly administered group punishments and that most were told by Probation Department staff that “you will be back.” None reported any access to drug or alcohol treatment programs during their time at county facilities.

Survey respondents also commented on a lack of addiction treatment or mental health support, and circumscribed educational opportunities at county-run camps and halls.

“If you misbehave or get kicked out of class, you can’t go out; you stay in your cell for the rest of the day,” said one respondent.

Not all the feedback was negative. “I never got disciplined,” one respondent wrote.

Several survey respondents hailed the work of educational programs New Roads and Inside Out Writers.

“My counselor Edwin still keeps in touch with me and visits me from time to time,” wrote one survey respondent about the New Roads program.

As part of the Youth Justice Coalition, Martines is hoping to change conditions faced by youth in facilities across the state by calling on the Board of State and Community Corrections (BSCC) to create better standards at juvenile halls, camps and ranches across the state.

The Sacramento-based agency oversees the adult criminal and juvenile justice system in the state. Every few years, the agency revisits the minimum standards that govern how juveniles are treated in the halls. This includes issues like what kind of food they are served and even the types of weapons guards may use to subdue youth.

In December, the BSCC posted a public notice on its website, requesting feedback for the standards at facilities. The surveys and focus group are an attempt by advocates to improve those standards, and to encourage the BSCC to make sure juvenile facilities are safe, rehabilitative places.

Today, Martines is working to finish a degree at Santa Monica College, and says that sometimes he thinks about returning to work with youth under lock-up as part of the Probation Department.

He is proud of his advocacy work to prevent the use of room confinement across the state, but Martines says that more attention is needed on the experiences of youth in county-run facilities.

“Once you start learning that other people who went through the same thing, you start feeling a sense of relief, like ‘I wasn’t the only one,’” Martines said. “And when you get a chance to work together to change that, that’s powerful.”

The Chronicle of Social Change

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